How I’m Simplifying the Holidays {For More Joy and Less Stress}

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simplifyDo you want a holiday season filled with meaning and joy? I know I do. I would love to spend the holidays enjoying time with loved ones and slowing down, as opposed to running around in high gear like a madwoman.

For the past few years I have tried to consciously simplify the holidays with materials from The Center for a New American Dream as my guide. This has helped my family do the following:

  • Decide what traditions really matter to us during the holidays
  • Live within our means while giving thoughtfully
  • Be intentional about how we spend our time

Below I’ll share details on each aspect of how we simplify the holidays!

The Big Picture

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I know that if my family tried to fit in all of our society’s traditional and expected holiday activities, it would leave us exhausted, broke, and probably pretty grouchy. So together we made a list of all of the possible ways we could celebrate the holidays and went about deciding which were the most meaningful and practical for our family. We focused on activities we could do together, for not too much money, and that we would all find enjoyable. Then we crossed off the ones that weren’t a good fit for us, at least this year. Here’s our list:

  • Shopping/making gifts
  • Wrapping gifts
  • Sending out a ton of Christmas cards
  • Baking a bunch of different Christmas cookies
  • Baking/decorating a Gingerbread House
  • Donating food and money to several charities
  • Hosting a big holiday party
  • Buying/cutting down a live Christmas tree
  • Decorating outdoors
  • Decorating indoors
  • Elf on the Shelf
  • Advent Calendar
  • Attending a holiday show such as The Nutcracker
  • Visiting relatives out of town

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While I would love to be able to do everything on this list, there just isn’t enough time in the day or money in the budget for it all.  Instead of baking a ton of Christmas cookies that aren’t good for us to anyway, I’m making one batch of cookies and a gingerbread house that we can decorate together. We did this last year and my daughter loved that she could help decorate the house! We did send out some custom Christmas cards, but just to a few family members and friends who we aren’t seeing in person this year.

While it was hard to decide what traditions were most meaningful and practical for us, I know that doing less and the slower pace is brings is completely worth it.

Living Within Our Means

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The messages about the holiday season we get from the media include “Bigger is Better” and “Buy More & Have More Fun”! There is huge societal pressure to spend, spend, spend during the holidays. But of course advertisers’ motivation for these messages is to get the money out of your pockets and into theirs. So many people go into debt during the holiday season, in part because we buy into these messages that we need to spend a bunch of money to make this the most wonderful time of the year.

My goal is to live within our means this holiday while still being generous. I take a look at our budget and decide how much we can reasonably set aside for Christmas. I try to consider all of the different costs associated with holiday celebrations (this budgeting tool from New Dream is incredibly helpful) and prioritize what is the most important. I also try to resist the societal pressure to overspend, which is a huge challenge!

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Because we are currently living mostly on one income while I stay at home with our young daughter, our budget is small – $300 for everything associated with the holidays. But I firmly believe that celebrating the season isn’t about how much money you spend. To me, the care and thoughtfulness I put into gift-giving is what matters most, not how much I spend.

Because I’m a nerd, I use a spreadsheet to keep track of what I spend on the holidays and what we are giving to everyone on our list. I record anytime I spend money on presents, craft supplies, wrapping paper, holiday donations, etc. It helps me relax knowing that I haven’t forgotten anyone and haven’t gone over our budget.

Gift Giving & Receiving

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I personally love giving gifts. It brings joy to my heart to give thoughtful gifts to others, so naturally Christmas is my favorite time of the year. It doesn’t hurt that my birthday is on Christmas day, too! 😉

While I will definitely buy some brand-new shiny presents for others (hopefully at a big discount!), I try to create useful homemade gifts as well. I focus on consumable gifts, or those that will be used up and not cause clutter and/or end up in a landfill. I really like to give edible gifts, such as baking mixes, and I have also made my own candles, sugar scrub and hand soap. I like to create photo gifts, especially for Grandparents, such as calendars, cards, and photo collages. All of these gifts can be made without too much money or time and are hopefully enjoyed by the recipient.

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Some yummy homemade soup mix

Here is a list of some homemade gifts I’ve made, plus check out my DIY Presents board on Pinterest for even more ideas:

Keep in mind that I usually choose one or two homemade gifts to make for friends and family each year. Trying to make every gift or making too many different things would defeat the purpose of simplifying the holidays for me!

We are also trying to instill in our daughter at a very young age that the holidays are about celebrating and thoughtfully giving to others, and not about getting a bunch of new stuff. I involve her in making and picking out gifts for her family and friends, even at age two. For example, we are making cereal bird feeders as a craft, then gifting them to a few family members from her.

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P.S. We decided this year to not really give her much for Christmas – but not because she has been naughty! Last year she was beyond thrilled with her stocking stuffers. She wanted to play with them all day and had NO interest in opening any other gifts. We practically had to force her to open all her presents, which seemed really silly to us! So this year, we are giving her stocking stuffers, some special books from mom and dad, and two little toys from Santa – that’s it. We hope it makes for a happy kid, less stress, and some breathing room financially.

How Do I Spend My Time?

The final way I’m trying to simplify the holidays is by being intentional about how I spend my time. I want how I spend my time to reflect my values and intentions. So during the holidays, I would like to focus on connecting with family and friends and enjoying the quiet moments of the season. When I was a little kid I would sit at the top of the stairs and look down on our Christmas tree for a few minutes each night. I want to be sure and have these moments of reflection and joy as an adult, too!

So if I find that I am spending more time shopping and than I am with the people who matter most to me, it is time to re-evaluate if I’m living in line with my values.

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I think it is important to note that there may be folks who don’t understand your desire to simplify the holidays. They may even judge you as being cheap and miserly. I have decided to simplify anyway and free myself from caring as much about the opinions of others. That’s part of simplifying the holidays, too, right?

I hope this post has given your inspiration and encouragement. Please check out all of the useful materials from New American Dream if you want to learn more. How are you living with intention this holiday season? Please share your ideas in a comment below!

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8 Responses to How I’m Simplifying the Holidays {For More Joy and Less Stress}

  1. Melissa Vera says:

    Yes I so agree that it is about the big picture. Cherish the moments when loved ones.

  2. i love this! i refuse to let societal pressures influence how we spend the holidays and Christmas! you have to do what works best for you and your family <3

  3. I so needed to hear this today! I literally just said to a coworker “the holidays are supposed to be relaxing, but they’re really not.” And, I think it’s okay for the holidays to be a little busy. This weekend is a SUPER busy weekend for us, and I determined to not let it ‘get to me.’ It’s just one weekend, and then next weekend will be quieter. I have to remind myself to chill out once in a while!

    • Leah says:

      This weekend is super busy, for us, too! Then I expect everything will settle down. Hope you find some peace and time for reflection during the holidays!

  4. Nikki C says:

    I really love the idea of simplifying the holidays and focusing on what matters most! I’m also geeking out over your spreadsheet because my husband and I use an intricate excel system to keep up with our finances, so adding a new column for allocating holiday expenses is perfect. One year I was really strapped for cash so I made all the gifts I gave to my family, and my grandmother told me she loved that gift more than any other because of the time and effort I put into it. From then on, I was hooked on finding meaningful gifts that my loved ones would actually like. I think that’s one of my favorite things about the holidays.

    NCsquared Life

    • Leah says:

      How great that your homemade gifts were appreciated, Nikki! Glad you liked the spreadsheet, too. I use spreadsheets for everything!

  5. Traci says:

    I love everything about this post – thanks for sharing! I’ve never heard of the Center for the New American Dream, but I definitely have to check them out after reading this. And I love how detailed you are with your holiday budget breakdown – this was really helpful for me and gave me some great ideas for simplifying! <3