Scrooge your holiday financial stress and take back your sanity. It’s been a rough year for all of us. Over half of all Canadians are living paycheque to paycheque.
The financial pressure of the season coupled with the sky-high price of literally everything means too many families will have to choose between presents or basic necessities this year.
Others will go into debt to finance the fanfare. Have you lost sleep from holiday financial stress? Me too. And I’m here to tell you there's a better way. Ho-ho-hold the anxiety! Let’s talk about ways to beat holiday financial stress, so you can shower your family with presence.
- Relieve holiday stress by setting a budget and sticking to it
- Stress free holiday means laying down the money ground rules
- Use prepaid cards to control your spending
- Use credit cards with cash back rewards
- Want a stress free holiday? End unrealistic expectations
- Stop last-minute shopping
- The “4 Gift Rule” for kids
- No gifts for the adults
- Draw names instead of shopping for everyone
- Donations instead of gifts
- Scrooge the big expensive holiday dinner
- Limit or eliminate holiday travel costs
- Relieving your holiday stress might mean spending time and not money
Relieve holiday stress by setting a budget and sticking to it
Peace on earth is a budget that you can stick to. If you want to make it through this time of year financially unscathed, you need to set a spending limit and stay the course. Sit down and tally up all the money you have coming in, and all money going out on things you have to pay no matter what; like the mortgage, utilities, childcare, groceries, etc. Those costs come first no matter what time of year it is. How much do you have left? That’s all you have to work with, spend it wisely. If you can, start budgeting a year in advance. Every payday I move $25 to our KOHO account. Come November, the kid’s gift budget is completely funded.
Stress free holiday means laying down the money ground rules
Communication is sexy. For some of you, talking about money and financial expectations is provocative, if not taboo. But if you want to make it out of this money pit, aka the holidays, alive then you need to use your words. Your significant other, kids, family, and whoever else it may concern all need to be on the same page. Are you shopping for all the adults or drawing names? What is the spending limit for relatives? Are you shopping for nieces and nephews, or just your own kids? How many presents will each of your children receive? Are you and your partner exchanging gifts? What is the spending limit? Who is responsible for stockings, teacher’s gifts, extended family, etc? Boundaries save lives, and money. We talk about how to set them later.
Use prepaid cards to control your spending
Prepaid cards have come a long way and have relieved a lot of my holiday financial stress this year. The brilliant minds behind Canada’s best fintech companies have given us the gift of game-changing financial products. Prepaid cards help you create budgets, set spending limits, earn cash back, and so much more. In fact, a prepaid card helped me save over 70% on a recent purchase. These cards can help you take back control of your money.
KOHO is a Canadian fintech company that offers essential everyday financial services, for free. When you open a KOHO account you’ll get a complimentary KOHO Prepaid Mastercard® card and unlimited free transactions like: card purchases, eTransfers, bill payments, and so much more. Every time you use your KOHO card to make a purchase you’ll get 0.5% cash back, up to a max of 5% cash back. The KOHO app helps you stick to spending limits because you only have access to the funds you deposit into your spendable account. You can lock other money away in The Vault where it can’t be touched. Also, you can enable a feature that rounds up your purchases and deposits the extra into a savings account to help you save when you spend. They offer joint accounts and tons of other features.
The Wealthsimple Cash App is one of the Canadian alternatives to Venmo. With the app, you can send money to friends and family in a matter of seconds. The app also comes with a free Wealthsimple Prepaid Visa card. Since you can only spend money you already have and preload onto the app, you won’t blow the budget and go into debt. Wealthsimple Cash App helps you stick to your holiday spending limits, so you can say “not today” to holiday financial stress. You’ll get 1% cash back on all your purchases, and 5% cash back on dining and food delivery services from Friday to Sunday.
Pro tip: If you plan to buy any restaurant gift cards for the foodie on your list, buy them on the weekend with this card to get 5% cash back.
With the Mogo Visa Platinum Prepaid card, you’ll earn 2% cash back in the form of Bitcoin every time you make a purchase. Bitcoin has been the best performing asset class of the last decade. That means your Bitcoin cash back balance has the potential to increase in value over time. Mogo will also plant a tree every time you swipe your card. The card is free to use and you’ll get access to budgeting tools, spending limits, and financial literacy resources to help you get smart about money. Bust holiday financial stress when you use the Mogo Visa Platinum Prepaid card to prevent overspending.
PC Financial recently launched their new PC Money Account. It comes with a free Debit Mastercard that is accepted everywhere that Mastercard is accepted. It is a prepaid card linked to the account so you don’t have to worry about a credit check, interest, or going into debt. You can only spend what you deposit into your PC Financial Money account. There is no monthly service fee and you get free unlimited transactions like purchases with your Debit Mastercard, bill payments, eTransfers, etc. You’ll earn 10 PC Optimum points for every $1 you spend with your PC Money Account Debit Mastercard. Shop your way to free stuff like groceries and stocking stuffers, without any fees. Ever.
Use credit cards with cash back rewards
Your bottom dollar depends on taking full advantage of every resource available to you. The best way to do that is to use cash back credit cards for all your essential and holiday spending, but only if you are disciplined. If you tend to go overboard, or can’t pay your credit card balance off in full each month, this method is not for you. But if you thrive in a world with limits, like me, choose a cash back or points card that fits your spending habits, needs, and goals. Then start swiping. Choosing the right cash back card can help you save a ton of money and get free stuff you actually want! My favourite cash back credit cards include, but are not limited to:
American Express SimplyCash Preferred Credit Card
The American Express SimplyCash Preferred Credit Card is one of those no-annual-fee cards with an attractive cash back rate. You’ll earn 4% on all gas and grocery purchases, up to an annual limit of $1,200.
After that, you earn 2%. You also earn 2% on all purchases in other categories. In reality, there is no limit on the amount of cash back rewards you can earn.
Items purchased with this card are eligible for Buyer’s Assurance Protection which extends the manufacturer’s warranty by up to one additional year. Your items are also protected from damage or theft for up to $1000 per occurrence.
Tangerine World Mastercard
The Tangerine World Mastercard is one of the most flexible cash back credit cards on the market, and it’s completely free with no annual fee. You’ll get 2% cash back on two spending categories of your choice, with six categories to choose from.
If you open a Tangerine Savings Account and have your cash back rewards deposited there, you’ll get access to a third 2% cash back spending category of your choice. You’ll be able to earn more money in the areas you spend the most.
There is no limit to the amount of cash back you can earn, and your earned cash back balance will be deposited into your Tangerine Savings Account every month. The Tangerine World Mastercard also offers Purchase Assurance which covers up to a $60,000 maximum lifetime coverage for loss, theft or damage of items purchased with the card. It also extends the manufacturer's warranty up to 1 year.
The American Express Cobalt Card is a little pricey with a $12.99 monthly card fee. That works out to about $156 a year. However, you’ll enjoy a much higher cash back rate. You earn 5x the points at restaurants or on food delivery. You’ll get 3x the points on eligible streaming services. You earn 2x the points on travel and transit. Plus you earn 1x the points on everything else.
Items purchased with this card are eligible for Buyer’s Assurance Protection which extends the manufacturer’s warranty by up to one additional year. Your items are also protected from damage or theft for up to $1,000 per occurrence.
BMO CashBack Mastercard
The BMO CashBack Mastercard also offers meaty cash back rewards for no annual card fee. You’ll earn up to 3% cash back on grocery purchases, 1% on recurring bill payments and 0.5% on all other card purchases. You have to eat to live, and you have to pay bills to live comfortably. You might as well make money on the essential spending you can't avoid. This card also offers both purchase protection on items purchased with the card, as well as a free extended warranty.
Scotia Momentum Visa Infinite Card
The Scotia Momentum Visa Infinite Card has a pricey annual fee of $120, but it comes with a robust cash back rate. You’ll earn 4% cash back on grocery purchases, recurring bills, and subscription services. You’ll also get 2% cash back on gas and transit expenses and 1% on all other card purchases. This card also offers purchase protection on items purchased with the card, as well as extended warranty protection.
Want a stress free holiday? End unrealistic expectations
All the best holiday shopping tips in the world won’t help those who are struggling to make ends meet. Many Canadians can’t just “personal finance” their way out of stagnant wages and the high cost of living. I see you. I was you. So how did I make it through the holidays when I just didn’t have the money? Out with the old, and in with the new. I said bah-humbug! to holiday habits that undermined our financial and mental health. Instead, we created new traditions that aligned with our values and brought us joy. Let’s take a look at how you can have a happy holiday without a lot of money.
Stop last-minute shopping
Look, I’m not going to pretend I have it all together. The holidays sneak up on me every year, too. But the best way to shop for the holidays without breaking the bank is to start early, like 364 days early. Start with those amazing boxing day sales. Don’t go crazy or anything, but you can start buying small things when they go on sale and store them away in a super-secret hiding place.
The holidays and Black Friday are not the only time of year that stuff goes on sale. Many companies quietly discount all kinds of things throughout the year. Keep an eye out in August, when there are often even better discounts than holiday-themed sales. When you buy fewer gifts at a time throughout the year, especially when it goes on sale, your budget won’t take such a hit. You’ll save more money in the long run and you won’t succumb to the pressure of filling your cart or paying an inflated price for that in-demand, hard-to-get gift.
The “4 Gift Rule” for kids
In our house, the holidays are about quality time with each other. The gifts are only a slight bonus. We use the “4 Gift Rule” to avoid going overboard and spending money we don’t have. What’s the 4 Gift Rule? Our kids get only 4 wrapped presents to open: something they want, something they need, something to wear, something to read. Scrooge materialism.
A stress free holiday shopping plan means knowing in advance the what, the why and the how much for each child. IN my house, children get their 4 gifts, they get a modest stocking with trinkets, treats, and a few necessities. We set a budget per child and remain strictly within that budget.
No gifts for the adults
Ok, this is extreme and won’t be warmly welcomed by every family, but it’s worth a shot. My husband and I are now in our mid 30’s with two small children. At this stage of our lives, there is nothing that we really want or need, so the holidays create a lot of pressure to spend money just for the sake of spending money. If you’re familiar with my writing, you know there’s nothing I hate more than that.
Years ago, my side of the family decided to stop drawing names and shop only for the children, not the adults. I can’t tell you what an amazing gift that has been for our mental health, and that alone has relieved almost all our holiday financial stress. Instead, we get together for coffee, dessert and watch the children open their gifts together. It extended the holidays for us by having something to look forward to after Dec 25th, and no one is under pressure to spend money they don’t have. Bonus, that impossible-to-shop-for brother-in-law who has it all? Not your problem anymore!
Draw names instead of shopping for everyone
Ok, so the no-gift rule for adults is a hard no with your family. I get it, I’ve been there with my in-laws. Some habits die hard. Drawing names is a great compromise for those families who find joy in gift-giving. Our family did this for years before we switched to the no-gift rule, and it worked well for the most part, until it didn’t anymore. Scrooge you, inflation!
Instead of buying a gift for each adult in the family, you all put your name into a hat and then take turns drawing names. That way, you are only responsible for buying one gift, and everyone gets something. I find this works best when coupled with a spending limit that is clearly communicated among everyone. Communication is the key to relieving a lot of holiday financial stress.
Donations instead of gifts
Every family has at least one; the bleeding heart do-gooder. There are three of them in my family, including me! I want for nothing, so it’s hard for me to give a wishlist to those who want to shop for me. But one thing I have always been passionate about is giving back. One of my favourite things to give, and receive, is a donation to charity instead of a physical gift. It’s pretty much the only time I love spending money. Scrooge you, poverty!
My husband and I have struggled through our fair share of financial trauma in the past. Now that we have fought our way back to solid ground, we are committed to paying it forward. If there isn’t anything you particularly want or need this year, consider asking your friends and family to make donations to your favourite charitable organization instead. For that person who has everything? Make a donation in their name to help those who have almost nothing. Donations to registered charities are tax-deductible and you can choose an amount that works with your budget.
Scrooge the big expensive holiday dinner
Stress free holiday shopping extends to food, too. A holiday potluck dinner is a sacred tradition on my side of the family. We rotate who hosts the fanfare at their home so that it’s not always the same person responsible every year. Each family brings a dish. That way, one person isn’t financially responsible to feed the crowd.
This has proven to be an excellent way to reduce holiday financial stress for everyone. It allows each of us to truly enjoy quality time together free of anxiety or resentment. After dinner, we all clean up together then kick back with eggnog and watch the kids open their gifts. It’s one of my favourite holiday traditions. Together, we can all scrooge our holiday stress.
Limit or eliminate holiday travel costs
For the last two years, we have done a “just us” holiday with a complete blackout period from December 24th to 26th. That means we do not entertain guests or leave the house to visit people for 48 glorious hours. Now, this may not work for every family but I encourage you to find a similar arrangement that does. It will help you save money on travel costs, and you’ll have more time to focus on things important to you.
For us, the most important thing we want from the holiday season is quality time with our children free from distraction. As two full-time working parents, we only really get to connect with our kids in the evenings and on weekends. With a holiday blackout period, we prioritize giving our children our complete undivided attention. This has restored so much joy for me I can’t believe we didn’t do this sooner. It has also relieved a significant amount of holiday financial stress since we are no longer pressured to spend money we don’t have on travel costs.
Relieving your holiday stress might mean spending time and not money
Your most valuable asset is your time. My favourite thing about the holiday season is the opportunity to spend time with the people I love. I prefer to give and receive gifts that maximize togetherness, like experience gifts. Instead of stuff, we prefer tickets to the movies or passes to places like the zoo, museum or science centre. Rather than money spent on a tchotchke that will get lost or broken, it’s an investment in creating memories with our children. We also love to give and receive games for family game night. You don’t even have to spend any money at all. Our boys love the outdoors, so we spend a lot of time sledding, building quinzees and igloos, and exploring new walking trails. Then we warm up with hot chocolate and board games.
About The Author: Heidi Unrau
Heidi Unrau is the senior Finance Journalist at Hardbacon. She studied Economics at the University of Winnipeg, where she fell in love with all-things-finance. At 25, she got her first bank job as an entry-level teller. She moved up the ranks to Credit Analyst, Loans Officer, and now a Personal Finance Writer. In her spare time, you'll find her hiding in the car listening to Freakonomics podcasts, or binge-watching financial crime documentaries with a pint of Häagen-Dazs. When she's not chasing after her two little boys, she's in the hot tub or arguing with her husband over which cash back card to use for date night. She’s addicted to coffee, crypto, and obsessively checking her credit score on Borrowell.
Fun Fact: Heidi has lived in five different provinces across Canada, loves her free Tangerine bank account, and will never cut back on Starbucks. Like ever.
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