It’s barely December and I’m already in debt from all my holiday spending. It’s a problem of my own making (I’m a freelancer and took some long-overdue time off work this summer, so I’m a little low on cash). But I’m also living it up more than usual. First I’m flying across the country to visit my sister and her new baby (!). Then I’m going to Mexico for a fancy wedding during New Year’s. I wish I could say that I’ve cut back on everything else to pay for it, but … I haven’t. I shopped a lot during the Black Friday sales and bought my family nice Christmas gifts. I’m hosting a party with friends next week. I just feel like, after the past two years of not going anywhere for the holidays and deeply missing my friends and family who live far away, I’m tired of being responsible and I don’t care how much it costs to enjoy myself and see the people I love.
But that doesn’t actually change my deep anxiety about the fact that I can’t pay my credit-card bill this month. I don’t even want to look at the numbers because I’m nervous that it’ll ruin everything I’ve paid for. I know that being in denial will only make things worse, though. How can I have fun this month without digging myself into a deeper hole?
Welcome to the beautiful, glittery, slow-moving train wreck that is this holiday season. We’ve already rolled out of the station; there’s no going back now. To all the judgy scolds telling us to grow up and stop spending money we don’t have: You can get off — we’ll see you in January. To everyone else on board: Welcome! We’re here to practice the fine art of getting a little sloppy and enjoying it.
Please note that this is not the same thing as spending recklessly and ignoring the consequences. The holidays are a time to go overboard, but you can do that and still remain accountable. Just because you’ve deviated from the order and discipline of a budget doesn’t mean everything has gone to shit. It just means you have to make a new plan.
It doesn’t mean your anxiety is wrong, either. To quote every therapist I have ever spoken to: “Anxiety is information.” It’s not there to shame you; it’s a signal that you’re in uncomfortable territory. “Think of it as a rudder that helps guide you,” says Amanda Clayman, a financial therapist based in L.A. Your next steps are to figure out why you’re feeling this way and what you can do about it, especially as you ride out this next month of hedonism.
1. Get to the root of your unease.
The reason you’re anxious might seem obvious: You’re living beyond your means, and that’s not a great habit. But it’s worth digging into some of the underlying assumptions you have about your situation, says Clayman. Have you been in trouble with debt before and vowed you’d never go back? Were you told that only idiots and failures spend more than they earn? My own inner critic loves to tell me that I’m spoiled, disorganized, and lacking self-discipline whenever I open my credit-card bill. It’s harsh in here!
Unpacking these catastrophic-thought spirals can help you think more rationally. Overspending does not mean your life is unraveling and you’ll die broke and alone. It’s also worth remembering that self-flagellation only makes things worse because it sucks energy away from the solution: accepting the reality of where you are and doing the math to pay for it. Don’t punish yourself further.
2. Make peace with the fact that you’re not in an ideal situation.
“Humans hate inconsistency and cognitive dissonance,” says Clayman. “We expect that if we do certain things, then we will feel a certain way, and it can be disturbing when we don’t.” For example, you might expect to feel great about celebrating lots of objectively wonderful things — your sister’s baby, your friend’s wedding, your ability to travel and be with your loved ones for the holidays. But instead, you feel stressed about how much it all costs. Conversely, maybe you expect to feel awful about how much money you’ve spent, and you’re worried that it’s going to ruin what should be a joyful month.
The thing is, you don’t have to feel one way or the other. It’s normal and healthy to feel all of the above at the same time. Money and personal relationships and holidays add up to a big crazy salad of emotions and obligations. Which is all to say: You can enjoy something and feel a little stressed about it, too. Conflicting feelings do not cancel each other out.
3. Stay in tune with your bills.
Most humans deal with a problem in one of two ways: (1) They ignore it and hope it goes away, or (2) They waste a lot of effort obsessing over it. You want to find a happier middle, says Clayman. “Some of us are afraid to look at the numbers, because we’re worried that information is going to be upsetting,” she explains. “The alternative is that we only look at the numbers, and it ruins Christmas.”
Of course, you don’t want a nasty surprise come January, but it probably won’t help you to get hourly text alerts from Mint either. Instead, pay for what you can — this month isn’t a total free-for-all — and cut costs wherever possible. The party you’re hosting? You don’t need a new outfit or a blowout or a pedicure (I promise no one will notice or care); tell people to bring booze or go full potluck. When you go to the wedding, bring snacks with you so that you don’t have to pay $14 for a gross sandwich at the airport or the hotel. None of these decisions will fix your debt, but staying proactive in the areas that you can control will ease the burden of it.
4. Create a spending plan, and ask for help sticking with it.
It’s probably unrealistic to cut your spending by much this month (like I said, the train has left the station). But come January, you’ll need to put the brakes on. You can do it! The key to following through is to be realistic. Set small, doable goals, automate as much as possible, and give yourself more time than you think you’ll need. (See here for more tips on getting your budget back on track, and here for pointers on getting out of credit-card debt.)
Clayman likens the debt-payback process — or “rebalancing plan,” as she puts it — to getting over a breakup. “People say that however many months you dated, it takes half that number of months to recover from the relationship,” she says. “Obviously everyone is different, but the point is, you can’t rush things. It takes time.”
Ditto for support, especially since you are not alone. (A recent survey found that about one in four Americans expects to take on debt this holiday season.) One of the biggest predictors of whether people can stick to new habits is if they enlist others to hold them accountable. This group doesn’t have to be formal or large; you just need just one or two people who will be firm but encouraging when you text them about your progress.
5. Try to avoid this problem next year.
Once you’ve gotten some distance from the holiday maelstrom, review what was worth it and what wasn’t. “The best way to make holistic choices is to plan ahead and try to match up your values, your priorities, and your resources,” says Clayman. “That might mean that every June, you set aside some time and ask yourself, ‘What’s most important to me about the holiday season? Am I cutting back on entertaining so I can put that money into gifts? Am I cutting back on gifts so that I prioritize time with other people? Do I start saving early?’”
Still, no matter how well you plan, I guarantee this won’t be the last time you succumb to holiday messiness. It’s part of what makes it fun — we’re all being a little bit stupid together. So give yourself some compassion and extend it to others too.
The Cut’s financial advice columnist Charlotte Cowles answers readers’ personal questions about personal finance. Email your money conundrums to firstname.lastname@example.org.