Is Maintaining Holiday Traditions Stressing You Out?

A financial adviser who’s been there, done that offers some tips on how to manage expectations, start new traditions and monitor holiday expenditures.

A woman wearing a Santa hat sits with her head down on her desk.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

As seasons change, so do family dynamics. Although we aim to embrace each new season of life, few changes are as emotionally charged as shifting holiday expectations. These shifts, and attempting to ignore them, can have financial repercussions as well.

Many factors contribute to a new family dynamic — loss of a loved one, divorce, new family members and geographical moves, to name a few. When added to the stress and anxiety that often accompany our traditions, what should be the best time of year can become the most challenging time of year. As the holidays come into full swing, it is important to acknowledge the impact they have on your mental and emotional well-being.

Evaluate what you are feeling and consider why. It is possible that you are one of the 10% of people who experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD) as winter approaches. And, if you are navigating other significant transitions, normal holiday stressors are magnified. As my family added one daughter-in-law, then another, and then one, two and three grandchildren, and our family spread over three states, I remember the anxiety associated with trying to force a gathering that everyone could attend and the disappointment of unmet expectations. How would we celebrate now? Eventually, through trial and error, I learned to manage expectations, experiment with new traditions and monitor expenditures.

Subscribe to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance

Be a smarter, better informed investor.

Save up to 74%

Sign up for Kiplinger’s Free E-Newsletters

Profit and prosper with the best of expert advice on investing, taxes, retirement, personal finance and more - straight to your e-mail.

Profit and prosper with the best of expert advice - straight to your e-mail.

Sign up

How to manage expectations

If you are expecting your holidays to unfold like a Hallmark movie, you are already on the path to a letdown. Our family’s traditions were not quite so picturesque, but important to us all the same. When I first had to let go of seeing both my sons together on Christmas Day, I grieved — and that was OK. If you are experiencing such a transition, take a deep breath, mourn if you need to and consider what new experiences and joys await you.

Even as you contemplate your own expectations, ask your family what is important to them. It could be that you are trying to re-create something that can easily be transformed into something better suited for your current situation.

Additionally, focus on the silver lining of any setback. Smaller gatherings may be less painful on your pocketbook, even if that wasn’t a major concern for you.

Experiment with new traditions

Last Thanksgiving was a lovely day — for everyone except me. I had exactly what I wanted: both boys and their families under one roof, extended family, both local and out-of-town, a cheerful, perfectly decorated home and everyone’s favorite food. Everyone had a wonderful time, and of course, that was part of the joy for me. What I did not count on was how exhausted I would feel and how regretful I would be that I had no time to genuinely enjoy the day myself.

As we began to discuss this year’s plans, I learned that my family had noticed my consternation, and they were open to something different. We explored the idea of eating out, which would actually cost less and certainly require less work. That may be a choice in the future, but this year we landed on celebrating a smaller gathering at my son’s new house.

Accepting that we can never re-create what my sisters and I experienced as little girls, or what my husband and I created for our little boys, opened our hearts to profoundly different and equally joyful holidays.

Shifts such as this create room for self-care, another tradition that will enhance your holidays. Some examples from the Health Coach Institute include:

  • Carve out time for yourself. Just 10 minutes can positively impact your mental health, so step away for some fresh air, a quick meditation or chat with a friend to help you reset.
  • Make (mostly) healthy choices. Enjoy the occasional Christmas cookie but jump back on your healthy bandwagon the next day.
  • Say no. Agree only to the things that are most important to you and politely decline anything that drains you or feels stressful.
  • Make a budget and respect it. Remember that thoughtfulness does not have a numerical value, so trade materialistic gifts for experiences, consider handmade gifts or donate time to your favorite charity. Going over your budget is often a stress trigger for families, so being mindful and intentional with a budget can help alleviate stress before it even starts.

Monitor your expenditures

Indeed, a large part of self-care is keeping an eye on what you are spending for the holidays. A LendingTree survey showed that 35% of Americans took on holiday debt in 2022, and 63% of them did not plan to do so. Spending naturally increases during the holiday season, so consider creative ways to honor old — or new — traditions without overdoing it.

  • Be intentional. Like many others, you may find that your gift list is growing. My extended family is quite large with not only seven nieces and nephews (and their spouses), but 20 great- and great-great-nieces and -nephews. While I want to be generous and hold on to the gift exchange my mother created, it is not financially feasible to do so. My intentional solution is to host a holiday party where every adult brings food, and only children under 18 receive a gift. No one minds helping with the meal, and the teenagers enjoy being treated like adults.
  • Pass down experiences. There is likely a favorite activity that you would like to pass on to future generations. For my husband, it was trekking through the woods in search of mistletoe, which he continues to do with his sons and grandsons. It makes for a fun, zero-cost afternoon and can be done anytime during the season.
  • Do not be afraid to downsize. It can be somewhat easy to downsize purchases and parties, but as an adviser, one conflict I often see is around the decision to downsize the family home. It may not be that the house is particularly special, but what it stands for is. There is often an associated idea that letting go of the material possession equates with letting go of traditions, especially those associated with the holidays. That is well and good if a large residence is still easy to navigate as you age and does not create a financial burden. However, that is frequently not the case, and continuing to maintain it can create stress for the entire family, all year round. This, like any financial decision, should be evaluated with the concept of why it is important. It may be that there is an alternative that is better if everyone is willing to consider it.

Change is hard, and transitions are challenging, but none is insurmountable. As we enter what we hope will be the most wonderful time of the year, remember that traditions are created for our enjoyment, we are not meant to mold ourselves to them. Embrace all that the season has to offer, even the unexpected.

Securities offered through LPL Financial, member FINRA/SIPC. Investment advice offered through Merit Financial Group, LLC, an SEC registered investment adviser. Merit Financial Group, LLC and Merit Financial Advisors, are separate entities from LPL Financial. The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Kelly Gallimore is solely an investment advisor representative of Merit Financial Advisors and not affiliated with LPL Financial. Any opinions or views expressed by Kelly Gallimore are his/her own and are not those of LPL Financial.

Related Content


This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Kelly Gallimore, ChFC®, CES®
Wealth Manager, Merit Financial Advisors

In July 2021, Kelly joined Merit Financial Advisors, bringing 19 years of experience in the financial services industry, as well as human resources and team development. A student of Behavioral Finance, she incorporates various tools to provide insight into clients’ own financial views and how their innate strengths and struggles can influence decision-making and ultimate success in reaching goals. In addition to traditional tenants of wealth management, Kelly specializes in estate planning and administration, guiding families as they consider personal and financial legacies.