5 Ways to Get Your Pandemic Holiday Spending Under Control

Lauren Phillips
·9-min read

Getty Images

To say this holiday season looks nothing like what we expected last year might be a bit of an understatement. Everything from our daily activities to special occasions have been disrupted—or canceled completely—because of the coronavirus pandemic, and shifts in our behavior and lasting financial consequences from layoffs, business closures, and more are sure to continue through the 2020 holiday season and beyond. If you thought figuring out how to save money during the holidays in a normal year was tricky, this year will be a whole other struggle.

It’s a challenge many people are already worried about. A survey of members of the U.S. middle class from mobile bank One found that 64 percent of people are experiencing considerably more stress around holiday spending this year, and a similar survey from personal finance site Credit Karma found that 54 percent of Americans feel more financially stressed this year than last. With unemployment at record highs and an uncertain future, it’s no surprise that this already difficult financial event is looming larger than ever.

That doesn’t mean it’s going to be impossible to make it through the holidays with your financial health intact, though. “There’s a lot different this holiday season,” says Michaela McDonald, CFP, an advice expert at financial services app Albert. Still, some things are the same: People are still excited for the holidays, McDonald says, and they want to spread joy and give gifts like they have in years past.

The balancing act, then, will be in making the most of the holidays while protecting your finances. “It’s going to be a year where people have to get creative,” McDonald says. Wondering what that looks like when you’ve already managed to learn how to budget money during coronavirus? Read on for clever solutions from our experts for making your 2020 holidays merry and bright, pandemic or no.

Reflect on your year

Before you can start preparing for the holidays (at least financially), you need to look back at how you’ve experienced the last few months and acknowledge all the ways in which this year will be different.

Beyond the obvious restrictions—you may not be able to go to the movies on Christmas Eve as you have for the last few years, or your annual trip to your family’s hometown may be canceled—your household might have experienced income loss, layoffs, or health issues. You may have even lost someone close to you.

All of that combined may want you to make this holiday season the biggest yet, or you may not be in the mood to celebrate this year. Either way, acknowledge how the last few months may be influencing you now.

A recent survey from banking service Marcus by Goldman Sachs found that 66 percent of Americans think they will spend the same amount of money or more on holiday gifts this year compared to last year, and 44 percent of those spenders said it’s because they are sending gifts to people they won’t be able to see in person this holiday season. The urge to compensate for a challenging or disappointing year (to say the least) by spending more money now may be well-intended, but it can hurt your financial future, particularly if you’ve lost income and have to go into debt to do so. (The Credit Karma survey found that 30 percent of people plan on going into debt over the holidays, with some saying it’s because they expect to overspend on buying gifts for kids, family members, and friends.)

By taking time now to reflect, you can become aware of why you suddenly have an urge to buy a gift for every person you know or order an out-of-your-price-range bottle of champagne for you and your partner to pop on New Year’s Eve. With that awareness, you can help curb your spending—and figure out which splurges are worth the potential financial consequences.

“This is a season of cheer, and finding that joy is important after what has been a long year for many people,” says Lindsay Sacknoff, head of consumer deposits, products, and payments at TD Bank.

Plan your spending

Once you have an understanding of what you want from this holiday season, it’s time to start spending—responsibly. “From a financial standpoint, the first thing to do is set a budget for yourself now for the end of the year,” McDonald says.

You’re allowed to spend money during the holidays—it is the season of cheer, after all—but you want to keep that spending within reason. You may already know how to budget. If that’s the case, look at your discretionary spending, or what you spend on non-essentials such as new clothes, eating out, and the like, and determine how much you can pull from that spending bucket to put toward gifting. If you don’t have a budget, now is the perfect time to make one that will cover the next few months. Add up your income for the next months, subtract essential spending, and determine how much of the leftover funds you can put toward buying gifts and celebrating the holidays.

“If you start with that budget, then you can figure out what you want to do,” Sacknoff says. “You may not need to spend much at all.”

The sooner you figure out how much you want to spend during the holidays, you can begin cutting back in other areas of discretionary spending to fill your holidays fund. Once you have that total dollar amount set for the season, make your gifting and holiday celebrations list and designate a dollar amount for each person or event. It’s OK to plan to exchange gifts with fewer people this year than usual—you won’t be the only one. The One survey found that 40 percent of those planning to spend less money on gifts this year hope to do it by giving to fewer people.

Consider those amounts hard limits and promise yourself you won’t go over them. The holiday money hangover in January and February, where you realize how much you overspent during the holidays, is real (and not fun). “It’s better to try to be disciplined through the holiday season,” Sacknoff says, rather than going into the New Year with your savings depleted and new debt weighing you down.

RELATED: How to Save Money

Get creative with your gifts

You’ve made your shopping list. Now it’s time to try to reconcile all the gifts you want to give with your (probably smaller than usual) budget. This isn’t the year to give best-ever gifts. Focus on smaller, more meaningful or creative gifts instead, and talk to your family and friends before the gifting begins to set expectations upfront, McDonald says. You can discuss spending limits or make a rule for only homemade gifts to save everyone from any awkwardness and give everyone involved the permission they need to spend as little (or as much) as they want with no bitterness on any side.

That done, think about what you can give that is low-cost or even free. Many households will have very low holiday budgets to work with, but even if yours has some wiggle room, saving some money where you can will only help you in the future, especially if your emergency funds are lower than you’d like.

“If you’re spending more time at home, and maybe you have a special talent, there may be some other ways to go at [gifting],” Sacknoff says. “What you’re giving this year is time.”

Plan a special, one-on-one (and safe) excursion with each person on your list, or knit them all scarves. (Those quarantine hobbies are more useful than you think.) There are ways to give heartfelt gifts that have a low dollar amount associated with them.

If you’re able to spend, focus on annual sales and shopping events, including Black Friday and Cyber Monday, which may be more deal-heavy than usual as retailers try to lure people into spending more. Just shop carefully: “If it wasn’t something you would have bought before, hit pause,” Sacknoff says. “[But] if it’s something important to you, you could really, really save money.”

Also look into online shopping tools, such as Honey, Google Shopping, or the new Microsoft Edge price comparison feature, to find great deals on items you already had on your list.

Lastly? Consider regifting. Even if you’d never regift, these are unusual times—and if you regift carefully, no one has to know.

Redistribute travel money

Most people probably had money set aside for those notoriously pricy holiday airplane fares or house rentals. If your trip is canceled, move that money into your gifting budget—it may mean you’re able to give a bigger gift to the sibling you won’t be able to see this year, after all. A recent survey from Ally Bank found that 66 percent of people with travel plans impacted by COVID-19 postponed their trips, rather than changing plans or canceling them—but if canceling your trip and recouping some of those costs means you can have a more satisfying holiday season, that may be the better call.

Alternately, you may be planning to spend more money on travel this holiday season because you’re planning to take a longer trip to allow for quarantines and more time with family or friends you haven’t seen in months. If that’s the case, talk about exchanging smaller (or no) gifts with the people you’re spending the holidays with to make the trip itself fit more easily into your budget. Your presence is its own present, remember.

Give up on being the hostess with the mostest this year

After gifting and travel, the cost of hosting—whether it’s hosting feasts, guests, or parties—is a huge expense during the holidays. With limits on the number of people who can gather together safely and public health warnings about spending extended time with members of other households, especially indoors, hosting your annual holiday bash is probably off the table this year, which means you may have extra funds to put toward gifts or savings.

You can still arrange holiday gatherings, but they’ll be smaller or virtual, putting more money back in your pocket. Make the event special by sending everyone a bottle of wine or sharing a cocktail recipe you can all make and drink together virtually, Sacknoff suggests, or put together a box of treats to drop on everyone’s stoop. Just don’t try to compensate for the lack of a celebration by sending lavish gifts or party favors. Save that money now, and you can throw a bigger-than-ever bash once it’s safe (and your finances are more stable).