It’s hard to keep an eye on your spending during the holidays — especially if you’re already broke. Being broke sucks, especially during December, when every store is clamoring for your credit card, your gift-list is long, and you’re invited to a half-dozen holiday happy hours.
If you’re panicking as the season approaches, you’re not alone: almost half of Americans stress about finances. But digging yourself deeper into debt will only cause more problems later on. Instead, give yourself the gift of self-care this holiday season.
Here are 5 ways to handle the holidays when you’re broke.
1. Overcome guilt
You’re not broke because you did something wrong —you’re broke because life is hard. Yes, counting pennies around the holidays can feel demoralizing, but it’s important to remember that it’s not a reflection on you. Whenever you’re feeling down, try focusing on one simple truth: This, too, will end. It’ll help you get through the holidays intact.
Of course, if we could all control our thoughts precisely, mental health wouldn’t be such an ever-present concern. If you have a therapist, now’s a good time to talk through your money-related anxieties with them. Alternatively, find a trusted friend —perhaps one that already empathizes with your financial situation —and use them as a sounding board.
2. Don’t risk your mental health to save face
The holidays are filled with endless opportunities to spend money — and 99 percent of the time, dropping the cash is unnecessary. Still, social pressure may make you feel obligated to use a credit card or dig into your do-not-touch savings accounts. If you don’t want others to see you as broke, this is a hard temptation to resist.
Ultimately, spending just to keep up your reputation will only compound the problem, making your financial anxieties worse. Remember: your mental health is more important than any holiday party. If you need to skip a brewery’s ugly sweater party or pass on this year’s Secret Santa, that’s okay.
3. Remember: Appearances aren’t everything
But everyone else is going to all the holiday events!, you might say. Their Instagrams are plastered with perfect family photos — taken in a pine forest, of course, by a professional photographer — and their gifts are so generous they could almost be called excessive.
Appearances aren’t everything. It’s easy to fake a perfect life on the surface, but that shows you nothing about someone’s inner life. Don’t idealize or idolize friends, family, or influencers living picture-perfect holiday lives. They might be struggling, same as you.
4. Accept charity when offered
The holidays are a time of generosity, and when you’re struggling financially, it can be difficult to say yes to help. Maybe your friend invites you to her Hanukkah dinner, but all you can think about is, “Is it so obvious that I’m broke?” Or maybe a stranger pays for your coffee at Starbucks, and it sparks a spiral of self-critical feelings.
While you never have to accept charity if it makes you feel uncomfortable, you don’t have to feel guilty about saying yes when a friend offers to buy you dinner, or when you get a too-generous gift from Grandma. Part of the joy of gifting is in the giving —and someday, you might be in the position to help someone out during the holidays. And then you’ll be sure to return the favor because you know how meaningful that help can be.
5. Take breaks when you need to
Prioritize your mental health. Sometimes holiday activities can be a lot, especially if you’re dealing with financial concerns in addition to other mental health problems, like anxiety or depression. Is the office gift exchange giving you palpitations? Don’t be afraid to skip it. And if holiday dinner is overwhelming, don’t feel embarrassed to find a quiet space to breathe.
If you’re feeling irritated by all the cheer, allow yourself to skip the “holiday spirit” this season. The holidays can, indeed, be overbearing, especially if you can’t afford to participate in the traditions you love — so go ahead and take a break. Hide out in your bedroom listening to your favorite summer tunes. Forego all Christmas cookies. Focus on what makes you feel good. If that’s not tinsel and garlands? That’s okay. Your mental health is more important.