The costly, stress-filled Christmas shopping season is here again

Bill in shape of gift box, wrapped with red ribbon

Black Friday kicks off the traditional holiday shopping season, and Americans are expected to spend a whopping $586 billion on Christmas gifts this year.

According to the American Research Group, consumers will spend an average of $854.

Despite the fact that Americans have no problem spending money this time of the year, many report that Christmas is a big source of financial stress.

In recent years, I've started to feel that way myself.

I enjoy time with family, decorations, holiday outings and gift-giving, but every year it gets harder and harder to rationalize the big bill.

It's not that I'm cheap or a Scrooge.

It's just that I really question the financial sense in the runaway consumerism mentality of it all.

It seems like every year we blow money on gifts people ultimately don't want or don't need. By some estimates, even a third of all gift cards go unused every year.

On average, I would say my wife and I blow around $1,000 on presents every holiday season. And if you throw in holiday dinners, outings, special events and other expenses, that could add up to another $500.

While I try to enjoy the holidays, I anxiously watch the expenses rack up throughout December. And I wonder what else I could be doing with that money.

I think about topping off my IRA, putting more money in my daughter's ESA, adding an extra cushion to the emergency fund.

With the exception of my daughter, I'd really like to scale back on gift-giving.

But it's just hard to do, especially when you have a large family and everyone else is giving you gifts.

Do you really want to be the only one not giving gifts? And do you really want to give someone a $20 gift when they give you a $100 gift?

Whether it's peer pressure or societal influence, it's hard to avoid in this retail, present-driven holiday. You rationalize irrational purchases by saying, "Hey, it's Christmas!"

Back when I was in my early and mid-20s, and poor, I don't think anyone expected much from me. I bought small gifts for my parents and sister and that was it.

But by the time I hit my 30s, my career took off and I got married, something just told me I was supposed to step up my gift-giving.

Suddenly I felt compelled to give gifts to aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, nieces, nephews and more.

Before I knew it, my holiday shopping list had grown from about four people to 14.

Gifts also got more expensive.

To accommodate it all, I had to double my holiday budget. Then I had to triple it. And then it grew even more when we had a baby.

Over time, gift-giving has gone from being fun to being a financial burden.

Expendable incomes are shrinking. My generation spends a much greater percentage of its income on things like housing, gas, food and health care.

So, even a decent income these days leaves less money on the table for Christmas presents.

I haven't come up with a true solution on how to deal with the financial stress of Christmas yet.

In the meantime, I've come up a few things to make it less stressful, or at least less hurtful, on my wallet.

My first rule is to never put anything on a credit card. I only pay cash, and in recent years I've used actual hard cash to ensure I don't go over my budget.

Pay with a debit card and you can easily rationalize spending another $5 or $10 on that $40 gift. But when you walk in a store with two twenties in your wallet, that's all you can do.

Avoiding credit cards it not just about avoiding interest, it's about ending the stress right then and there. I don't have to have a bill lingering over my head in the New Year.

I also create a reasonable budget on how much I can spend. Of course, that "reasonable" budget is already beyond reason. But I do what I can to at least minimize it.

Spending $750 on presents might be a lot, but it's still better than spending $1,000.

I come up with a number and then I try to start whittling it down.

Instead of cutting people out of the list, I might chop $10 off present budgets here and there to get to where I need to be.

Then once I have a budget for each person (they vary), I start trying to find gifts to fit within that budget.

For couples, we've also found we can usually get a nicer joint gift for less, as opposed to two individual ones.

It's systematic, but it's the only way I can make this work anymore.

I usually pull my Christmas money straight from my savings.

It's not the end of the world, but it's a pretty large chunk of change. At our current budget, Christmas shopping isn't going to put us in financial jeopardy. We'll still be able to pay our mortgage and bills.

But it is taking away from our savings, and every year, it's a little sting in the bank account.

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