Long view lessens Dec. money stress


December and financial stress: They just seem to go together.

Some workers fret about making that year-end bonus. Factory employees worry about year-end plant closings. Families struggling with heating and transportation costs wonder how they'll come up with holiday gifts for the kids.

Pile on the vast amounts of food we'll eat this month and the exercise sessions that get canceled, and you have a prescription for a pretty unhealthy way to end the year.

So should we worry about the long-term effects of all this worrying? Yes and no, said Joshua Klapow, a psychology professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who studies the health effects of stress.

A little short-lived stress about spending too much at holiday time isn't going to present serious health risks if it is resolved after the first of the year, Klapow said.

For many people, though, the holidays are just a marker in time amid yearlong worries about money. And for those with chronically poor diets and sedentary lifestyles, these factors combine to cause illnesses including intestinal problems, back problems, depression and fatigue, he said.

Anxiety sparks intense worry about a variety of issues, including money, careers and health, according to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America. The group reports other symptoms include insomnia, dizziness, trembling and irritability.

"Even without all the relationship stress at holidays, we're also dealing with end-of-year billing cycles and bonus issues," Klapow said. "And the social pressures to spend are huge. It's a big problem" for many people, he said.

Financial advisers often tell people to set a holiday spending budget at the start of the season and stick to the plan regardless of any hue and cry for an Xbox 360.

The real key to reduce the stress is setting a goal that lets you feel generous without setting yourself up for months, or years, of paying off high-interest credit-card debt.

One way to come up with a goal that suits you and your income is to consider the benchmarks.

Consumers are expecting to spend an average of $738 this holiday season on everything from gifts to holiday meals and wrapping paper, according to a holiday spending survey by BIGresearch for the National Retail Federation.

Households earning more than $50,000 this year are expected to spend an average of $1,004, while those earning above $100,000 will spend $1,318 on average, the survey of 7,726 consumers found. Those earning less than $50,000 will spend an average of $578.

Another way to come up with a spending goal is to consider your annual budget. How much do you want to spend on others throughout the year? From that figure, prioritize how much goes to your favorite causes and how much will go to your circle of family and friends as an expression of your feelings for them at holiday time.

Janet Kidd Stewart writes for Tribune Media Services.

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