How To Financially Cope When You’re Broke During the Holidays

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Being financially broke during the holidays is a physically and emotionally challenging issue many face, but it tends to go largely unspoken during this time of year. It’s important, first and foremost, for those who are financially struggling to know they are not alone. Here’s what makes it challenging to struggle with money during the holidays — and some no-cost ways you can celebrate the season.

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Why Is Struggling With Money So Challenging During the Holidays?

During her first Christmas after graduating from college, Chloe Elise had her first “big girl job” but was still feeling broke. Despite this, Elise, the CEO and founder of Deeper Than Money, felt she also no longer had the excuse of gift-giving like a “broke college girl.”

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In what was supposed to be the happiest time of year, Elise said she was scared of spending money.

“It felt like every day there was a new financial demand: a gift exchange at work, a secret Santa friend exchange, traveling to see my family… all I saw were dollar signs,” Elise said.

Money struggles, whether you just graduated from college and have no money or are in even more dire circumstances like living from paycheck to paycheck, can suck the holiday spirit out of those experiencing financial hardship. Elise said the reason why it’s emotionally challenging to struggle with money during the holidays is because it feels contradictory.

“Everything is telling you that you should be holly jolly, but the pennies at the bottom of your purse are the only thing jingling all the way,” Elise said. “You want to be generous and happy but it just feels like you’re so alone.”

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What Should I Do If I’m Financially Struggling?

The old adage of honesty as the best policy rings especially true during the holiday season. Elise recommends being honest about your budget with family, friends and any children you may have well in advance. 

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While this is not always a comfortable conversation for many to have even with loved ones, Elise said it can be spun as a positive to your loved ones. They don’t need to buy you a gift, which may relieve financial stressors or pressures they have that you don’t know about. 

Elise said you can present them with the idea that instead of buying gifts, you’d love to do homemade gifts or acts of service for each other. There’s even room to make this into a fun challenge where you decide to shop only at Goodwill or secondhand stores to save money. 

If your loved ones insist on getting you a gift still, even though you have nothing to give in return, Elise said you can let them know that since you’re in a season of financial improvement you’d appreciate practical gifts. For example, consider a gas or grocery gift card.

Employees who are financially struggling can also tell their coworkers they’re planning to sit this year out on the office holiday gift exchange. “You can still be involved by being the ‘coordinator,’ taking charge of making treats or dressing up as Santa and being the secret Santa commissioner, for fun!” Elise said.

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Families with kids can use this time to teach their children about the true meaning of the season. Rather than emphasizing getting gifts, families can do something meaningful at home together like making a fort to watch a holiday movie in, baking treats to give to others and giving back as soup kitchen volunteers. Elise said even if things feel financially tight right now, giving back can help you realize how fortunate you are to have a home and food.

No-Cost Ways To Celebrate the Holiday Season

There are many no-cost ways for everyone to celebrate the holiday season, said Dr. Ellen Contente, founder of Heart-Centered Programs. See which options below you and your loved ones may be able to enjoy!

  • Making gifts or giving “acts of service.” Contente said her kids have given her handmade gift cards to wash her car, give her a massage or another gift they can do themselves. 
  • Accepting gifts and meals from your local spiritual center and/or extended family and friends. “Don’t be ashamed to ask for what you need,” Contente said. “There are many organizations that collect gifts, food and basic necessities for those going through tough times.”
  • Attend free festive events. “Many towns have free tree-lighting ceremonies, parades and festivals,” Contente said. “It costs nothing to attend and they’re a great way to get into the spirit.”
  • Take a drive to look at holiday decorations. Many neighborhoods will have Candy Cane Lane themed streets. Contente recommends preparing a thermos of hot chocolate and driving around the neighborhoods to look at all the holiday decorations.
  • Stay cozy at home on New Year’s Eve. You don’t need to be in Times Square to count down the new year! Stay in with loved ones, enjoy bowls of chips and dip and shake noisemakers when the clock strikes midnight. You can also use this time to write out resolutions for the upcoming year. Contente said her family started a tradition of writing out their deepest desires for the new year and putting them into a jar. The family opens the jar on the following New Year’s Eve to reflect on their wins over the year.

Finally, remember to practice gratitude. While the holidays can easily feel commercialized, they are a good time to reflect. Contente, who celebrates Christmas and Hanukkah with her family, said this is the time to create your own traditions and celebrations. 

“We chose specific movies we watched on Christmas Eve and then on Christmas Day. Our Chanukah traditions included lighting the Menorah and making latkes. And, my next door neighbor always brought over tamales they cooked for Christmas and invited us to dinner,” Contente said. “This is the true meaning — of not just the holidays — but the spirit and goodwill of man.”

Remember to always be gracious when receiving gifts during financially difficult times, too.

“It’s part of the divine flow. I wrote an affirmation during bleak times, ‘I always have way more than I need whenever I need it’ and it has never failed me,” Contente said.

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About the Author

Heather Taylor is a senior finance writer for GOBankingRates. She is also the head writer and brand mascot enthusiast for PopIcon, Advertising Week’s blog dedicated to brand mascots. She has been published on HelloGiggles, Business Insider, The Story Exchange, Brit + Co, Thrive Global, and more media outlets. 

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