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Managing financial stress during Christmas

Christmas can be a stressful time for many reasons, whether it's feeling the pressure to buy the best gifts or cook a perfect roast. Despite Christmas being a joyful time for many, the shopping and preparation process can be more stressful than exciting. Research from the National Debt Line shows that three million people in the UK feel financial pressures make Christmas less enjoyable.

This year in particular, the financial stress of Christmas will feel heavier than usual for many following the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has led to a rise in unemployment levels and a decrease in national income by 20%One study conducted on UK adults aged 34 and under found 43% of people are worried about spending more than they can afford this Christmas, and 20% worry about spending more than they need.

The contrast between those who are in better and worse financial positions since the pandemic could make financial struggles particularly hard to cope with. Those who kept their jobs and spent less during lockdown have seen their savings rise, while many have lost their jobs and by December 2020, almost 9 million people in the UK had to borrow more due the the pandemic. Younger people have been disproportionately affected. If you're financially struggling but you know your relatives can afford to splash out, there may be an element of shame.

So, how can you manage financial stress and anxieties around debt at Christmas?

Why is financial stress often heightened over Christmas?

Christmas can be a tricky time for lots of people for a variety of reasons. It might be due to additional financial pressures, unrealistic expectations, or loneliness. The festive season can be overwhelming since there is often an expectation to create a picture perfect Christmas filled with lavish gifts, food and happy family celebrations. However, this isn't realistic for everyone, so Christmas might represent a difficult period that magnifies certain issues for them.

This year, as a result of last year's lockdown, expectations may be particularly high. 

Counsellor Gemma Campbell says the expectation to be cheerful might also be heightened with the increase in sentimental Christmas advertising, both on TV and in stores. That's not forgetting the increase in festive social media posts which may portray an unrealistic image of Christmas.

How can financial stress impact someone's enjoyment of Christmas?

"Anyone can feel stressed at Christmas, but those dealing with financial concerns, unemployment, housing issues or financial debt might be more likely to feel increased stress during this time of year, as pressure to spend and have an exciting Christmas mounts," explains Campbell.

So much of the festive season is money-orientated, and many get the impression that you have to go 'all out' to make Christmas a memorable one. Financial stress can take a toll on someone's physical and mental well-being, and can lead to serious conditions such as:

It isn't just the individual who can be affected by financial stress. It can also lead to arguments in families and relationship breakdowns. It can cause a hostile environment on Christmas Day and cause someone to withdraw from their loved ones. Worrying about money can prevent someone from being excited about Christmas as they're unable to afford gifts. Equally it can spoil the day itself and New Year as they fret over debt and what sacrifices they will have to make for spending more than usual.

Tips if you're struggling with financial pressures this Christmas

Campbell offers advice if you're struggling with your finances this Christmas, particularly if you feel pressured to put on a show for your children.

Start Christmas shopping early

"Preparing for Christmas in advance can help you split those financial costs across a longer period of time. This means you won't have such high costs close to Christmas and the early prep might help decrease those stress levels too, instead of leaving things until the last minute," she says.

Budget

Budgeting can be difficult at the best of times, but especially around Christmas and even more so if you have children you just want to spoil. However, setting a realistic budget that suits you and your family and sticking to it can really ease your anxieties about not having enough money. Being honest about what you can spare might prevent overspending too.

"When it comes to presents, secret Santas (where you buy one gift for a chosen individual instead of giving gifts to everyone) are great with extended family. You could also suggest doing them with friends or colleagues, as this can feel more manageable if you have multiple groups to consider," says Campbell.

Share the load

Christmas isn't solely on your shoulders. The festive season is a time of togetherness, so don't feel ashamed to delegate. Your family won't mind helping out, and they would rather that than see you struggle.

"If you are hosting Christmas this year, think about what others could bring along to contribute. For example, if you are cooking Christmas dinner, perhaps suggesting someone bring a starter, someone else bring dessert, and another bring drinks. That way you relieve some pressure, both in terms of taking on all the responsibility and it being easier on your pocket too."

Get creative

Lavish portrayals of Christmas in films can make you feel a need to spend a fortune on Christmas gifts. However, you don't need to have a living room drowning in wrapping paper on Christmas morning. You can create personalised presents without spending a lot of money - you might not need to spend anything at all if you use things you already have around the house.

If you have a skill like drawing, writing, photography, cooking, or making anything at all, get creative and make a really thoughtful, unique gift that only you could give. It's likely your loved one will be touched by such a personal gesture and it'll make them smile knowing they own something that doesn't exist in the shops. You can even make your own cards.

How to practise self-care and stress management

Be in the moment

When your mind is filled with money worries, it can be useful to practise being in the here and now. Some simple grounding exercises, such as focusing on your breathing and noticing your senses (what you can see, hear, feel, smell and taste), can help you feel more in control and less overwhelmed.

Practise some simple self-care

While a bubble bath shouldn't be a substitute for genuine medical support if you are really struggling, sometimes the little things can make you feel better.

"When you're feeling stressed, you might forget to take care of yourself. Making sure you are eating and drinking enough, and doing small things to take care of your physical and emotional needs, might help you calm down when stressed. Taking a shower, sitting down with a good book, going for a walk or even just spending time with a friend could be useful," suggests Campbell.

Move your body

She also recommends physical activity to de-stress. While it's important you don't push yourself, and you rest if you're on the edge of burnout, some gentle exercise is a great way to release unhelpful feelings and increase feelgood hormones. It can be a home workout, following a fitness video online, doing some yoga, going for a stroll, stretching or playing a sport you love.

"Getting your body moving is great for both your physical and your mental well-being," says Campbell.

Reach out to people around you

Whether it's a family member, friend, colleague or someone else you trust, reaching out to someone about how you feel can help you express your emotions and get some advice from those who know you best.

Get a good night's sleep

"Financial stress can really affect your sleep, so make sure you have a calming bedtime routine and ensure you are getting enough sleep. There are lots of great apps with sleep meditations you could try out if this appeals to you, since you might struggle to unwind and switch your brain off," says Campbell.

Where to seek professional support

If your stress levels are affecting other aspects of your life, such as your sleep, mood, appetite and relationships, you should talk to a professional. They will be impartial and non-judgemental of your financial situation. You can share your feelings with them and learn effective coping strategies.

It's a good idea firstly to consult your GP, who can signpost you to local services or offer medication if needed.

Alternatively, there are other organisations who offer emotional support:

  • Samaritans: to talk about anything that is upsetting you. You can call their helpline on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org.
  • Qwell: a free, confidential, digital mental health platform available in lots of UK areas.
  • National Suicide Prevention Helpline UK: this service offers a supportive listening service to anyone with thoughts of suicide. You can call them on 0800 689 5652, a helpline that is open 24/7.
  • For help managing your finances, the National Debtline is a government service that offers free, confidential and independent advice on financial issues.
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