How to Plan for the Holidays When Living On Your Own for the First Time

Most of us know that the holidays are meant to be an exciting time spent with friends and family. However, this isn’t always the case once you’ve made the leap out of your parents’ house and into an apartment of your own. Even if you’re living with roommates, the holidays can suddenly seem daunting and scare you to the point of avoiding them altogether. Not only are the holidays more expensive than you may have realized, but the season may start to feel lonely without the company of your closest family members.

Whether you’re in your mid-twenties or fresh out of college and living on your own, these are tips that anyone can use to make your first (or fourth) holiday on your own a great one.

Start budgeting and think small.

Money can be a tough subject for anyone, let alone a recent grad or someone who’s newly living on their own. While it’s overwhelming most of the time, it doesn’t have to destroy your hope for decorating and preparing for the holidays. It’s important that you take time to sit down and budget. When do you have to pay your phone bill? When is rent due? Should you even buy Christmas presents this year?

Ava Almaraz, a first-year at Elon Law School, had a little trouble because she wanted to buy gifts for people but wasn’t in a great place to.  “Because it is my first year of law school, I’m not allowed to work due to school policy and therefore have no income,” she says. “I was actually encouraged by my family to not buy them gifts, but for certain people I couldn’t resist.” Ava adds that she bought gifts for her immediate family.

A rule of thumb for mastering the holidays is budgeting. When you budget correctly, there’s less chance of spending too much.  “The most challenging part of the holiday season for me is budgeting,” says Linsey Schmid, a graduate from Queens University of Charlotte who’s been living on her own for about eight months. Like Ava, Linsey keeps her gift list small.

When you do start hunting for gifts (or those cute decorations that look more expensive than they actually are), check out dollar stores, the dollar section at Target, Walmart and Marshall’s for inexpensive items. Amazon is another place that offers holiday deals on items you can give as gifts. You can also DIY your gifts and decor.

“I would say that if you put a lot of thought into a gift, that matters more than how much it cost,” Ava says. She adds that her sister may have been a broke college student, but she was crafty and made everyone homemade gifts that turned out amazing. It’s the love that made them special.

A final piece of advice around budgeting and thinking small comes from Shannon Griffiths, a Plymouth State University grad from 2017 who really encourages you to think small. “Skip the traditional tree,” she says. “And get a small tabletop tree and decorate in other small ways.” This could be something as simple as hanging up string lights or using festive pillows.

Reach out to family and friends.

Don’t get caught up in the potential feelings of loneliness and stress caused by the season. Even if you can’t afford to give someone any gifts this year, you can afford to spend time with them.

Ava says that you need to surround yourself with people who are going to make you feel joy and loved during the season. “Living on your own during the holidays can sometimes feel lonely,” Ava notes. “It’s the season that people spend with loved ones and it’s all about family and enjoying people’s company.” She says that decorating helps her feel less lonely, but it isn’t the only way to make the holidays feel good.

If you’re stuck at your new home for the holiday season, there are a ton of inexpensive and free things you can do. You could have an under $10 Secret Santa gift exchange with a few of your friends, drive around and look at Christmas lights, go to a cute Christmas market (we recommend you leave your wallet in the car), have a holiday movie marathon, or bake sugar cookies (with royal icing, of course).

“We make several batches of cookies and fudge,” Ava says about her family’s holiday traditions. “[It’s] a fun bonding experience and is only the cost of groceries to buy the ingredients.” Even if you're on your own, baking cookies is a fun way to pass the time. You can even offer some to your apartment neighbors who are home for the holidays. It might just land you a new friend to spend the holidays with.

Sometimes, people get busy and you aren’t going to be able to spend time with them; Linsey knows this firsthand. “I only get to see my family for the night of Christmas due to my work schedule,” Linsey says. “If your family is inviting you to spend the holidays with them, do it.” You never know when you’ll get to see them again, and it may help with the loneliness or anxiety that has been surrounding you since Thanksgiving.

Going home for the holidays may not be the best choice for you, though, and there’s nothing wrong with that. When trying to decide if going home for the holidays is the best choice for you, think about your budget and the relationship you have with family members. There’s absolutely no shame in not being able to afford the gas or plane ticket to go home. Plane tickets are expensive and gas prices constantly fluctuate. If you do choose to go home, Linsey recommends buying your plane tickets early; it’s cheaper that way.

Regardless, if going home is going to make you more miserable than happy, don't do it. "Don't feel obligated if you know there are going to be people around that bring you down," Shannon says. We can all agree that there's no shame in making the best choice for your mental health as long as you're communicating that with someone (and not spending the whole season alone). 

Related: How to Decide Whether or Not to Go Home for the Holidays

Take time for yourself.

“Take time for yourself and breathe,” Linsey says. “We are working adults living on our own. It is hard to think about decorating, gifts and the holidays.” Sure, that cute photo album would make a meaningful gift and your sister may really love that necklace you saw at the store, but you don’t need to run yourself down to do those things.

Ava feels that dealing with holiday stress on top of her worries about school is one of the most challenging parts of this season. She’s had to find a balance so she can both enjoy this time of year and still pass her exams. Linsey finds that she can’t even think about December until it’s actually December. Between her masters’s program and working intensive jobs, she has to take time for herself just to breathe.

While the holiday season can be challenging for just about anyone, it can be especially challenging for someone who isn’t used to being alone for the majority of it. Don’t let yourself spend too much time on your own during the season; with the right mindset and group of people, you’re sure to make the first holiday you spend on your own the absolute best.