5 Ways to Take Your Life Back from Holiday Debt

When Dave Stoop and I wrote Take Your Life Back, we discussed the difference between reactive behavior and responsive behavior. The latter is what we’re after: making choices and behaving in a way that’s intentional and consistent with our values and plans for life. Unfortunately, too many of us, because of unhealed wounds from the past, merely react to life. We make decisions and behave based on the circumstances so we can avoid opening up those old wounds.

One of the behaviors that best illustrates these destructive behavior patterns is holiday spending. Each year, thousands upon thousands of people spend themselves into tremendous debt for many of the same reasons that alcoholics drink themselves into a stupor or other addicts abuse their substance of choice. These people have one thing in common: To avoid dealing with a painful wound, they behave themselves into worse situations.

Before you jump headlong into another holiday spending spree that will leave you scrambling to pay off your credit cards in the New Year, take a look at these five simple, but meaningful, first steps toward confronting your pain and taking your life back from this piling up destructive debt.


  1. Set boundaries. Christmas is a time of giving, and many wrap themselves in that noble thought while spending money they simply don’t have. While the Bible teaches us to be generous with what we do have, it never instructs us to give what we don’t. The widow who left her two coins at the altar gave sacrificially from what she had! She didn’t pull out her credit card and put herself into debt by borrowing someone else’s money. Set a generous but firm spending budget for holiday gifts and stick to it. And you don’t have to buy for everybody, either. Plan in advance who you’re going to buy gifts for. More on that in a minute.
  2. Don’t use gifts to make up for lack of time spent. Too many people use Christmas as an attempt to make up for a lack of relationship development over the course of the whole year. They think if they buy a nice, expensive gift, that will compensate for all the times they were “too busy” to attend to the people in their lives. They know these relationships are important (otherwise they wouldn’t be buying a gift) and they haven’t invested the necessary time and attention. Here’s the true truth: Cash and things don’t equal time and love shown. If you’ve accumulated relational debt this year, don’t go into financial debt trying to pay it off. Ask for “loan forgiveness” from those you love and resolve to make “regular payments” to those who are important to you in the coming year.
  3. Don’t try to outspend others. Dave and I talk a lot about comparative living in Take Your Life Back. That’s the tendency we have to measure ourselves by what other people do or think. We see this played out at Christmastime every year when somebody tries to take on the role of Santa. They want their gifts to stand out, to be better either in quality or quantity than everyone else’s. It’s an artificial attempt at earning respect. And it doesn’t work.
  4. Used cash you’ve saved, not your credit cards. If you want to ensure you’ll stick to the boundaries you’ve set, adopting a “cash only” policy for gift buying is a great way to go. As Dave Ramsey points out, credit cards allow us to avoid the “pain” that comes with spending. When we use cash, we immediately feel the effects of our hard-earned money changing hands. While credit cards offer us an “easy out” from the budget, cash gives us a harsh reminder of what we’ve spent and what we have left. Getting away from the budget involves several more steps to retrieve more cash, whereas the credit card can destroy a budget with a single, painless swipe.
  5. Don’t give out of guilt. Another part of the boundary-setting discussed in the first point was establishing a list for giving. How many times have we gotten a gift from someone we didn’t intend on buying for? Naturally, this brings on an initial feeling of “but I didn’t get them anything” guilt. The reactive person will immediately go out and buy something, a cheese and sausage sampler, anything to push down that guilt…and there goes the budget! The responsive person, however, has the strength to overcome those feelings of guilt. Instead of a reactive gift, the responsive person will approach the surprise gift giver and have a conversation that looks something like this:

Alan (responsive recipient): Hey, Bill, I really want to thank you for that gift card you gave me. It was really thoughtful on your part. It means a lot to me that you thought of me this year.

Bill (surprise giver): You’re welcome. I know how much you enjoy good food.

Alan: If I’d known we were exchanging gifts, I’d certainly have planned better. I’m working really hard on personal budgeting this year, so I’m sorry to say I won’t be able to return the favor right away. Besides, I’d much rather do something for you later that’s meaningful to you rather than just run out and buy something so I won’t feel guilty. I hope you understand. I just wanted you to know how much I appreciate your thoughtfulness. I’m really glad to have you as a friend.

Bill: No problem, Alan. I really hope you enjoy it. I’m glad you’re my friend, too.

That conversation only occurs because “Alan” has the strength NOT to act out of guilt. It not only preserves his budget, but affirms a friendship and lets “Bill” know exactly the value he has in Alan’s life. Would a cheese and sausage sampler do that?

Don’t let this Christmas be another year of trying to pay off old “debts” by building up new debt. Get out of that destructive cycle and take your life back. That’s the best present you can give to yourself and to those you love.

If you’d like to find out how to live a more responsive life and break those destructive cycles of reactive living, check out Steve and Dave’s book, Take Your Life Back. By the way, it might make a great Christmas gift, too!