One of my clients, whose immediate family includes 30 people, has described himself as a Grinch when it comes to Christmas gift-giving. “Every year I swear I’m going to shop early, and every year I procrastinate. I never know what to get for people, and it seems pointless to buy some generic stuff they probably won’t even care about. And some of them don’t even acknowledge the gifts I do send. I hate Christmas shopping!”

The word “joy” features prominently in music, greeting cards, and ads around the holiday season. Yet many of our holiday rituals and expectations seem to bring as much stress and worry as they do a sense of celebration. Articles on how to cope with holiday stress are routinely featured alongside those on how to create impressive decorations or prepare gourmet holiday meals. Not to mention, of course, the countless ads for “must-have” gifts.

No wonder my client, like so many others, has struggled to find joy around holiday gift-giving. This year, however, he decided to take a closer look at his expectations and emotions around the season.

What he discovered was a pair of contradictory money scripts. One was, “I should give each person something special to show that I love them.” The other, stemming from his childhood and early adulthood where frugality was essential, was, “It’s wasteful to spend money except on necessities.”

Both of these money scripts were rooted in good intentions. Yet they were in such direct opposition that the conflicting messages were paralyzing. Finding that “special” gift for each member of a large family, including some that he didn’t see often, was a huge challenge in itself. Add in a belief that those gifts should be inexpensive and practical, and the task became almost impossible. No wonder he found it so difficult to find any pleasure in shopping for the holidays.

The process was complicated even more by several additional money scripts that he uncovered: “I have to treat all the kids and grandkids equally.” “Giving money instead of shopping for a gift is too easy and says I don’t care.” “Other people find thoughtful gifts, so I should be able to.” “I could find the right gifts if I just started earlier.”

He also uncovered a fear that was part of all of these money scripts: “If people think I am cheap or ungenerous, they won’t love or like me.”

Over the years that this man has been my client, by the way, I have seen him establish college funds for all of his grandchildren, help to care for several elderly relatives, and generously and consistently support several charities. His behavior shows both caring and generosity.

This year, after exploring his money scripts around holiday giving, he chose a different approach to his Christmas shopping. It combined his desire to show love and his need to feel that his gifts would be appreciated.

He told me in mid-November, “I’m getting one small gift, like a board game, for each family. Then I’m giving donations to charity in each person’s name. I’ll actually spend more, but it feels as if the money will be more meaningful. I don’t have to search for gifts in busy stores and feel more and more stressed. Instead, I’m having fun making cards to announce the gifts to the charity. I don’t know if all the kids and grandkids will be happy about it, but the ones who might not like it are the ones who never thank me anyway. What matters is that I’m happy about what I’m doing. For a change, my Christmas giving is bringing me joy.”

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