How to Cope & Plan for Holiday Financial Stress

As soon as Thanksgiving is over and my husband pulls out the Christmas decorations, my anxiety goes through the roof. My parents are divorced so my husband and I have to balance the holidays with visiting three families.  We also have a wonderful circle of friends that we want to celebrate with.  We have church functions, work parties, preschool parties and since we are a military family, an Army party. How much will this year cost? How many events can we cram into each week? Are the gift exchanges set up yet? What are the spending limits? The questions are endless and I don’t want to be this stressed about the holidays. I want to enjoy the simple pleasure of decorating the tree with my kids. I want to mindlessly sing all my sons favorite Christmas songs while teaching my daughter about the reason for the season. I want my family to spend way more time giving than receiving and I want to bake cookies and wrap presents without moving so fast I burn the treats and cut my fingers.

There are things we can do this year, even late in the season, to ease our anxiety.  We can start with a fresh approach to making holiday plans.  There are a few conversations my husband and I have at the start of each holiday season regarding our schedule.  The first one usually is how will we keep track of commitments and what will we commit to? Some years, we have used a wall calendar to manage our schedule.  Other years, electronic.  This year was a very messy combination of both.  My husband returned from an overseas deployment just one day before Thanksgiving.  We started making holiday plans before then and I did not know if he would make it home for the holidays so I had to keep track of things in multiple places.  I had my wall calendar to help our children learn about planning and I also had an electronic shared calendar with my husband to ensure he felt included in our plans and also give him things to look forward to when he got home.  I also had my work planner so I could manage my vacation time with all of our activities. Although I felt a little overwhelmed, having things written in so many places has worked well for us so far. I’d rather not have so many calendars in the future but surprisingly, we have not missed a Christmas party yet. However, I did forget to bring a gift to a white elephant party the other night.

It’s great to have a strategy for how you will keep track of your plans.  It helps ensure that no one double books a weekend or forgets an ugly sweater contest.  But it’s also really important that your family decides how you will choose what events to attend.  Parties may be fun, but they all usually come with a cost and even though it’s the holidays, this is not the time to toss out your budget. Not letting holiday events run away with your wallet is a great way to combat anxiety.  My family accepts invitations if we can afford it and of course if we want to go.  Sometimes we use the excuse that we can’t afford it to get out of something we don’t want to do. When we think about the cost, we are thinking about what food or gift we would need to bring, how much gas and tolls would cost if it’s a long trip, how much is a hotel if it’s an overnight trip.  We also think about non-monetary costs like missing other commitments, stress of a long car ride, or time away from home.  If the event is outside our budget or the non-monetary costs seem too steep for us, we politely say no.  The most important thing is to talk as a family before committing to anything.

Because of our situation this year, I had to make some decisions without my husband. In one case, I committed us to a holiday party that was going to be a little outside our normal event budget.  I took the time to do a cost estimate and I also considered the non-monetary gains of attending the party. I felt like I was making a decision that was in line with our family’s values and would not present a financial hardship.  Luckily for me, my husband agreed!  He is also determined to win the ugly sweater contest at that party.

There is one other thing I want to share with you that I regularly do to keep anxiety at bay, especially during this time of year. I keep a notebook handy to write down random things I need to do before Christmas.  Sometimes it’s a distant family member I forgot to get a gift for, or an activity I heard about in October that would be great with the kids in December.  Now, I am a little old school when it comes to lists and I much prefer a little notebook in my purse to an electronic list on my phone but you just find what works for you. The only thing I do not recommend is post-its. They may be colorful and adorable but if you write Aunt Lisa’s gift idea on one, I almost guarantee it will never be ordered on time.

As we enter the last two, and most intense, weeks of the year, take a few minutes to think about what brings you the most stress this time of year. Try finding an approach that works for your family to ensure you don’t over commit and ultimately overspend. Reduce rushed and impulse spending by designated a spot to jot down items you still need to buy before December 25th. Once you identify the parts of the holidays that are hard for you it is much easier to develop a strategy to combat the anxiety and truly enjoy the blessings this season has to offer. Merry Christmas.

Financial Assistance

Don’t Leave Money on the Table – Pay Yourself First

Before Thanksgiving comes the benefits-enrollment season, and while most of us know we should be saving more, many people feel overwhelmed trying to figure out their options. The Internal Revenue Service recently announced an increase in the contribution limits to retirement savings plans, but only about half of all working Americans contribute regularly, meaning they are missing out on a tax benefit and any potential employer match. The rule of thumb in saving is “pay yourself first”, but that’s hard to do when there are so many demands on your income. How you think about saving – about debt, about your budgeted fixed and variable expenses – can make a big difference in how quickly you reach your financial goals.

If your bank balance dwindles towards the end of every month, leaving your savings jar empty, your first step should be to examine your budget. Fixed expenses are those items that don’t change, month to month, like rent, utilities or a car payment. Variable expenses are those items you maintain some control over, like groceries, entertainment. Then there are those expected AND unexpected items that pop up; periodic expenses are those you can anticipate and budget for, like annual membership dues or tax payments. Nothing in life goes exactly to plan, so everyone needs an emergency fund to help out when it doesn’t.  

Most people can easily find places to trim variable expenses and plan for periodic ones, and your lifestyle should align with your income, but making serious headway on the road to financial security may require a rethink of what you really need – including what you consider a fixed expense today.

HGTV’s tiny houses and Bravo’s frugality reality series are evidence that what might have seemed like extreme lifestyle changes ten years ago are now worth considering. There is no shortage of stories about people who have drastically cut their cost of living to accelerate their financial success. It all starts with a dollar, knowing how many you have, where it is going, and plugging the holes.  

Let’s return to the pay-yourself-first mantra. Debt is the biggest barrier to saving, so paying it down is the essential first step. Stop accumulating it (by reducing your variable expenses), and take a hard look at cutting your fixed (and periodic) expenses. For some that may mean downsizing, holding off on a new car, or setting up a daycare co-op. A certified nonprofit financial advocate can review your income, your expenses and your debt, and help you come up with a budget that meets your goals.

Making big changes to either your fixed or variable expenses is going to affect your lifestyle, but try to keep your eyes focused on the long-term benefits. Dedicate as much as you can to the savings options available to you, like 401k and 403b plans, especially if your employer offers to match it. Contribute automatically each paycheck, and if you can possibly avoid it, never leave free money on the table!

Decisions about your health insurance premiums – a fixed expense – are also on the table during the benefits enrollment season. It is very important to take the time to get a clear picture of your costs – your copays, deductibles and prescription drug coverage as well (the variable expenses associated with health care).

It never hurts to take advantage of a free session with a certified financial advocate during benefits enrollment season. Find more room in your budget, tackle your debt and enjoy the peace of mind that comes with financial stability.

Hosting a Halloween Party that Won’t Haunt your Budget

Budgeting for the holidays

Does Halloween invariably freak out your October budget? Research says it deserves its own line item, with the 175 million consumers expected to spend an average of $86.79 – or $9 billion – on the holiday, according to the National Retail Association.

It is easy to get caught up in the fun and forget to be frugal. Many a costume and decoration has found its way to the graveyard of impulse purchases, haunting you from the place you stored them last year, but can no longer remember. With a little forethought, creativity and DIY elbow grease, you can delight in the fright without saying boo to your budget.

Parties, Pets, Personalities

It’s no surprise Halloween is coming! Decide on a family theme early this year and build around it. Half the fun of the festivities is in the planning!   

One of the biggest expenses are costumes. We’ve all had the experience of searching for a last-minute disguise we know will be destined for the trash heap the next day. Add a child or pet to wardrobe and the cost of store-bought dress up becomes dreadful.

Make-up not masks! Forget sweaty and stinky head coverings made in China. Use cosmetics or cheap face paint, or create a mask you can print and mount on cardboard. Basics like string, cotton balls, glue and markers are back in fashion!

Use your body as a canvas. Mount homemade costumes on a background of neutral clothing. If you are forced to buy a guise, get one that doubles as pajamas.

Fall victim to cuteness! Homemade warms the heart of the maker, the wearer and the admirer. Pinterest is papered with affordable costume ideas for your kids, and maybe even more importantly, your pet! Keep things simple, comfortable and adaptable. And remember, a quirky costume is a talking point!

If you are hosting a get together, carry the theme over to potluck! Send invitations to your friends with creepy party food ideas, like boo-scotti, icky intestines bread, or a skeleton made of fresh vegetables. Tickle your friends’ imaginations and keep people laughing all night!

The truth is a lot of us feel pressure to party, so it isn’t without stress. Stay focused on having the fun you can afford and face your fears! Talk to one of our credit counselors for free advice!

Guidewell Financial Joins National Network of Financial Services Innovators

Guidewell Financial Solutions , a certified, nonprofit housing and credit counseling provider, has joined the Center for Financial Services Innovation (CFSI) – a national network focused on consumer financial health – on Financial Health Matters Day.

 

Financial Health Matters Day is an annual awareness holiday hosted by CFSI. Guidewell Financial Solutions, together with other network members, use this holiday as a platform to continue paving the way for financial health for all consumers.

 

While the membership for Guidewell Financial Solutions primarily includes insight into what the marketplace needs through advanced consumer and industry research, Guidewell Financial Solutions will be able to take these collective learnings and advance financial products and services in Maryland and beyond to promote financial health locally.

 

“This membership offers a tremendous opportunity for our organization to use market intelligence and resources from our peers to further our mission and offerings in our community,” said Guidewell Financial Solutions’ CEO Helene Raynaud.

 

For additional information on Guidewell Financial Solutions’ CFSI Financial Health Network membership, please call 800-642-2227. For general information on Guidewell Financial Solutions, visit http://www.guidewellfs.org/ .

Happy Small Business Week, From Our Small Business to Yours

The national Small Business Week logo may feature a series of storefronts, but as a leading nonprofit financial counselor for small business owners, we know that many of them operate outside of Main Street, USA.

 

Maryland has more than 580,000 small businesses and they all look different. From the farmers hosting the local market you shop at and the person who cuts your hair, to your favorite food truck and the team who plows snow out of your neighborhood – we all rely on small business owners every day. And they rely on us.

 

We teach business owners how to separate their personal and business finances; understand their personal credit’s impact on their business; utilize a customized financial action plan to better manage a small business; and manage personal debt at the same time.

 

As a small business owner, having access to a nonprofit financial counselor like Guidewell Financial Solutions can make a big difference in seeing personal and business financial dreams become a reality. We recognize that money management – including spending, saving, and borrowing – is an important life skill, but it’s also important for small business owners at every stage of the business lifecycle.

 

As we celebrate National Small Business Week this week, we’re offering afree guide to separating personal and business finances – typically the first step for small business owners starting off. The six-page guide explains everything from Employer ID Numbers to financial coaching. We’re committed to supporting small business owners with resources and tools that support their financial wellbeing.

 

With certified credit counselors and financial education experts guiding individuals, families, and small business owners on money management every day, our team is acutely aware of the financial challenges small business owners face. 

 

Every small business owner counseled by Guidewell Financial Solutions walks away with a financial action plan and a full assessment of their financial challenges. Small business owners can arrange financial coaching in person or on the phone.

 

Anyone with an interest in making the most of their personal financial goals while starting or growing a small business can connect with us today by visiting www.guidewellfs.org or calling toll-free 1-800-642-2227. 

 

Small business owners can also download our Open for Business Guide to Separating Personal and Business Finances here.