No matter how prudent you’ve been leading up to Thanksgiving, as soon as you’re sitting around that food-packed dinner table, it’s as if someone shouted, “On your mark, get set—overeat!”
And before you know it, you’re as overstuffed as the Turducken on your plate.
And thus begins the bingeing that will become a staple of the next few weeks.
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When the holidays roll around, many people think it gives them license to overdo it—not only with food, but also with gift giving, shopping, socializing and placating family. Basically, if there’s a way to overindulge yourself or loved ones, the holidays will help you find a way to do so.
“The true spirit of the holidays often gets eclipsed by buying presents for everyone you’ve ever met, making sure everyone in your family is getting along, and going to every party so you don’t disappoint anyone,” says Los Angeles–based therapist Ali Goldstein. “The trick is to focus on what’s important to you and—respectfully and kindly—set boundaries.”
To help you keep that overdo-it syndrome in check, we’ve lined up money and mind experts to provide advice on how to avoid six common “overdo it” holiday pitfalls that could impact your mental, financial and physical well-being. From stress management tips to spending strategies, their insight can help you ring in the New Year right.
Holiday Pitfall #1: Overgifting
There’s a reason why people say it’s better to give than to receive: We love the warm, fuzzy feeling that comes from seeing loved ones' faces when they unwrap that box.
And this holiday season, Americans are feeling pretty generous, with plans to spend about $804 on gifts—5% more than last year, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation.
The problem, however, comes when we push beyond our means to give to others—a big cause of financial stress that's not the intended spirit of the season.
“There are many different reasons why people give gifts: obligation, gratitude, love,” explains Goldstein. “But there is sometimes an implied challenge around who will buy the best gifts, and the notion that if they give the ‘perfect gift,’ anything strained between the giver and receiver will melt away.”
Then, of course, there’s the allure of the discount price tag. Why not just add a few more gifts to the pile while you’re already getting 50% off at a Black Friday doorbuster?
“Retailers will tempt you to buy on impulse with seemingly inexpensive items, especially at checkout,” says consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch. “An extra $5 makeup case or $10 mittens may seem cheap, but every time you succumb, your spending rises.”
“People often end up making gifts more about the object, instead of honoring their feelings for each other.”
How to Keep It in Check Unlike a surprise car repair bill or your hot water heater going on the fritz, holiday shopping is a foreseeable expense, explains Mark Chemtob, a CFP® with Law, Chemtob & Associates.
Translation: You can plan ahead for it.
“There’s always a pretty significant financial uptick during the end of the year for travel, gifts and charitable contributions, so it [should be] part of any targeted budget," Chemtob says. "Some people set up a separate bank account for those types of expenses to keep themselves honest.”
Also know that retailers can manipulate “original prices” on sale items to make it seem like you’re getting more of a deal. But even if you’re convinced that price tag is legit, you still have personal spending limits to consider.
“That’s something we try to talk to clients about. [The gift] is not a relative cost—it’s an absolute value,” Chemtob says. “So ask yourself: With tax, shipping and other related costs, is this [still] a good deal?”
When you’re in the heat of the shopping moment, Goldstein also recommends taking a step back before whipping out your wallet to make sure you’re not merely buying a present to appease a deeper emotion, like anxiety or guilt toward a loved one. “People [often] end up making gifts more about the object, instead of honoring their feelings for each other,” she says.
Holiday Pitfall #2: Overspending on Yourself
For many of us the season of giving includes a couple of stocking stuffers for ourselves—a trend known as self-gifting that retailers have jumped on. After all, with all the shopping, entertaining and family refereeing you’ll have to do, don’t you deserve a little something for yourself?
Maybe it’s the siren call of the two-for-one sale. Or perhaps you want to freshen up your appearance, which isn’t unusual for this time of year, says Goldstein. “During the holidays, you [mingle] with more people than usual, and you want to look your best,” she adds. “So people end up fitting in an extra hair appointment or facial.”
There’s also the matter of stress-relief—when you may spend a little more on yourself because you’re feeling overtaxed. “People dine out more during the holidays because they are either busy with work and shopping, or preparing for guests,” Woroch says. “You see more people going out to the movies too.”
How to Keep It in Check You don’t have to cut out gifts for yourself altogether—you just have to establish some boundaries around them, suggests Woroch.
“If you self-gift every time you buy something for someone else, you're going to rack up debt,” she says. “Set up a reward system instead—if you complete your holiday shopping a week early, for instance, allow yourself to buy one nice gift for yourself during last-minute holiday sales.”
Another tip to pad your self-pampering budget? Find a way to treat yourself without eating up the gift budget you have allotted for friends and family.
“You may consider redeeming credit card rewards points you earn for shopping to get gift cards to a local spa,” Woroch says. “That way, you can get your facial treatments essentially for free.”
Holiday Pitfall #3: Overeating and Drinking
The real question probably is: How could it not happen? With all the turkey, ham, stuffing, yams, pies—not to mention Grandma’s world-famous, extra-strong eggnog—it’d be a miracle if you didn’t overindulge at the dinner table … and the office potluck … and your neighbor’s big New Year’s shindig.
Then there's the temptation to succumb to emotional eating as a way to cope with holiday stress, or to get together for drinks when you see all of your old buddies in town. “When we’re surrounded by friends from our youth, we get inspired to act as if we were still 21, which is when one can tend to drink more freely,” Goldstein says.
All of this may be part of the reason why 34% of Americans say gaining weight is what they dread most about this time of year—even more than those who gripe about going into debt or having to shop for presents.
How to Keep It in Check Just because the season of plenty has arrived doesn’t mean you can throw your healthy sensibilities out the window.
“One trick to not overeating at a holiday party is to have a healthy meal before you go, so that you’re full and won't be tempted to overindulge,” suggests Goldstein. “Also, using small plates or napkins to snack instead of larger plates [can help]. If you want to taste everything, remember to take small portions—and no seconds.”
“We all fall back into our family-of-origin roles when we're surrounded by parents and siblings. [Sometimes] all the work you've done over the years to resolve issues feels undone in minutes.”
When it comes to alcohol, remember that limiting yourself isn’t just about protecting yourself from extra calories. It’s also about preventing the sloppiness that can lead to poor decisions or choices of words—which is especially helpful when you’re around coworkers and family.
“Decide how much you will drink before you get to an event and stick to it,” Goldstein says. “Or if you drank the night before, perhaps decide that you'll be the designated driver for this party, or that you'll nurse just one glass of wine for the night.”
Holiday Pitfall #4: Overextending Your Hospitality
When it comes to family and friends that you don’t see too often, your automatic tendency is to be as accommodating as possible, whether that means becoming more pacifying or letting an entire brood of extended family crash at your place.
That’s all well and good—until catering to others means compromising your own needs. And when you find it's increasingly hard to bite your tongue because of your brother’s salty words, it can be easy to resurrect old hard feelings and inadvertently betray the adult you’ve become.
“We all fall back into our family-of-origin roles when we're surrounded by parents and siblings,” explains Goldstein. “Buttons get pushed more easily and the trip home doesn't feel as wonderful and relaxing as you'd wished. [Sometimes] all the work you've done over the years to resolve family issues feels undone in a matter of minutes.”
How to Keep It in Check Before you become mired in the past, take a moment to get centered and consider that the people around you may be battling the same feelings of yesteryear.
“It's important to remember that you have grown since you were a 16-year-old kid fighting for independence,” Goldstein says, adding that it's also wise to set limits that keep the peace. So perhaps you decide certain topics of conversation are off-limits, including those old, festering arguments.
“Try to see the people around you as adults," she says. "Forgive family members for their flaws, appreciate their wisdom and set strong boundaries—recognizing that you are allowed to set them and have them respected.”
This includes being specific about expectations for length of stay and personal time constraints—but be careful to communicate this without sounding resentful and stressed.
"Just state your limits explicitly," Goldstein says. "For example, 'Mom, I would love for you to stay. Why don't you come over these specific dates?' " And don't feel bad about needing alone time. A simple "I'm going back to my room for a bit to read" can go a long way toward saving yourself some sanity.
The one other thing Goldstein suggests: Always communicate your wishes and respond to family requests in person or over the phone—the tone of an e-mail can be easily misinterpreted.
Holiday Pitfall #5: Overpaying for Holiday Travel
Unlike leisure vacations, you can’t pick and choose when you want to celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas—which means, unfortunately, you end up paying a premium for everything from plane tickets to hotel rooms.
“[You can] try not to travel on the busiest days of the year, but during the holidays, people tend to have less flexibility,” Chemtob says, adding that you may be stuck having to offset that spending by cutting back in other areas of your budget.
How to Keep It in Check Even if you don’t have much wiggle room over when you travel, you can control some of the extra costs. For example, “you don’t want to travel with suitcases full of gifts or you could end up paying a lot for checked bags,” Woroch says. “Ship them to your final destination or arrange for in-store pickup instead.”
As for airfare, make sure to check the fine print on a ticket price that seems too good to be true. “If you opt for cheaper airfare, you may get slapped with additional fees for checked baggage, carry-ons, seat selection and more,” she adds. “The flight that seems pricier may, in fact, save you a few bucks.”
Woroch's tip? Track airfare or hotel prices using a travel search engine like Yapta, which will alert you when prices go down—and can even help you get refunds from airlines if the price drops after you’ve purchased a ticket.
And before you hit the road, check whether any memberships you have can nab you a travel discount. A good first place to look, suggests Woroch, is your warehouse club card—some of which offer reduced rates on car rentals and even vacation packages.
“Make a deal with yourself to prioritize your invitations and only attend the events you want to. Try to make the holidays less about how the songs and decorations are telling you to feel.”
Holiday Pitfall #6: Overemphasizing the Season
Right after Thanksgiving is when we start seeing the frenzy of tinsel, twinkling lights and shiny happy people, so it’s easy to put pressure on yourself to be in the holiday spirit—even if you’re not feeling it.
In fact, 30% of people say the most annoying thing about this time of year is having to “fake holiday cheer.”
After all, during these few festive weeks, the realities of life still persist—and they can feel all the more burdensome right around now.
“People can get depressed around the holidays, especially those who have specific feelings attached to [the time of year],” explains Goldstein. “If you are not feeling like spreading ‘joy to the world,’ you might end up even more depressed because you couldn't rise to the occasion.”
How to Keep It in Check Instead of forcing your holidays to fit a certain stereotype, try to enjoy the days as they come. This is particularly important when you get overtaxed socially—listen to what your body and mind are telling you, and try to find moments of peace when you get overwhelmed.
“Holidays are a time to rest, relax and take time off from work to spend with family and friends,” Goldstein says. “Implement daily self-care when your to-do list gets long. Don't sacrifice working out for errands. Remember to eat healthfully and don't skip meals.”
And although ’tis the season for giving, it’s O.K. to sometimes say no if it means saving your sanity.
“If you are the kind of person who other people turn to for help with their to-do list, make sure you don't take on too much,” she adds. “Make a deal with yourself to prioritize your invitations and only attend the events you want to. Try to make [the holidays] more about [relaxing] and less about how the songs and decorations are telling you to feel.”