It's the season of giving, but you're just about ready to give up. Time and money demands from your family (you forgot to buy Aunt Edna's gift, schmuck), work (late nights finishing that year-end report, "Paper Clips: A Company-Wide Assessment"), significant woman ("Can't you carol with me at the nursing home, you selfish bastard?"), and the social scene (another eggnog hangover) can reduce even a triathlete to an over-weight, debt-ridden wreck. Here, then, is MF's present to you: a survival guide — 12 ways to prevail over the harrowing holidays.
1.) It's OK to be Scrooge
It's Christmas Eve and you're racing the clock to score your final shopping items before the buzzer. Because you've waited until the last minute, you'll take anything — and thus you've tossed your budget to the north wind, piling even more debt onto your already wheezing credit cards. What's this? MF got in touch with the Ghost of Stressmas Past — who will give you clearance to press the redo button on your holiday shopping. "I got one thing to say," says the Ghost. "Talk to the people with whom you'll exchange presents and establish gift-giving parameters. You won't look like a frickin' cheapskate for buying your mom a dish towel if you set a price limit for the whole family. There's nothing wrong with putting coal in people's stockings if you all agree to it beforehand."
Game Plan: Play Secret Santa with your group — this way, each person has to buy only one gift instead of six or more. You can also initiate a spending limit — say, $25 per person. "Don't spend more than one week of your net salary on holiday gifts," says David Bach, author of The Automatic Millionaire. "Problem is, most people spend three or four weeks'." One clan that Bach counseled spent $6,000 on presents for a single Christmas — and they already owed a combined $30,000 on credit cards. Counsels Bach: "Don't go lobster shopping on a tuna-fish budget."
Bonus: Start your gift hunting at least a month before the holiday rush to prevent a last-minute spending frenzy.
2.) Keep your sack stacked.
Nothing can make you feel like more of a douche than getting a gift from someone and not having anything for them in return. So why not keep a few emergency gifts handy? Robyn Freedman Spizman, a gift-giving expert (wow, where do you go to school for that?) and author of Make It Memorable: An A-Z Guide to Making Any Event, Gift, or Occasion . . . Dazzling!, advises shoppers to keep a closet full of last-minute presents on hand. That way, if someone jabs you with an unexpected gift, you can counterpunch with a pre-wrapped uppercut. Even if your closet's already full with skis, that pile of clothes you meant to give to the Salvation Army in 1993, and that bag of leftover Cheetos from St. Patrick's Day, you can still make a little room. Spizman recommends having at least two all-purpose, all-person presents on hand to help you avoid that awkward, "Er — but I didn't get a thing for you" moment.
Game Plan: Buy a couple of books off the bestseller list — and if you slip a $5 gift card inside as a bookmark, you'll make an impersonal last-minute gift look, well, novel. Then you can always take a cue from Seinfeld and try re-gifting — just wrap up the bottle of Innuit wine your co-worker gave you and bring it to your neighbor's holiday cocktail party.
Bonus: Chained to your desk? Head to your favorite magazine's Web site. In three secs you can launch a one-year gift subscription.
3.) Start New Year's with a bang — not a banged up relationship.
You just got off the phone with your brother, confirming plans for the family's annual New Year's ski trip to Tahoe. That's when your girlfriend IMs you, asking if she should dress formally for your New Year's Eve together — back home in Milwaukee. "This is a classic misunderstanding," says Peggy Post, great-grand-daughter-in-law of Emily and author of the 17th edition of Emily Post's Etiquette. Better idea? Talk about New Year's plans with your main squeeze no later than three weeks before.
Game Plan: You want to avoid any bad feelings with your old lady — whether you're spending New Year's with her or not. If you are going to be together, she needs enough notice so she can go out and get all Sex and the City at Saks in the city. If, however, you're leaving her behind — stop snickering, Mr. Maturity — you better have a damn good reason.
Bonus: If you're not going to be with your woman on New Year's, make sure you pay her some extra-special attention before you leave. "Be sensitive if you're not spending New Year's with her," warns Post. "Give her some flowers — they're always a great way to apologize — and make a date for after you return. Unless you think the relationship won't last, then definitely do not lead her on."
4.) Drop that sugarplum, Tubby!
We know, we know, there's little time to exercise during the holidays. MF's heard it all before. And rum balls, deviled eggs, and — woo-hoo! — open bars on the company dime don't help your suddenly Santa-like waistline. But if you're mentally prepared to fight holiday fat, it will help prevent you from turning into a celebratory butterball. Absolutely do not disrupt your exercise regime," says Michael Roizen, M.D. "In fact, exercise more." Roizen, the bestselling author of the anti-aging bible RealAge and a self-described preventative gerontologist, also noted that the non-health-conscious lifestyle we're accustomed to living over the holidays can make you age four years in one month. "If you gathered all the food you eat at one reception," he says, "it would fit on a 24-inch platter — enough for three days. So you should actually aim to lose weight — that way you probably won't gain any."
Game Plan: Just because you see pigs in blankets at holiday parties doesn't mean you have to be one. Always alternate between food and a glass of water — the water will fill you up and leave less room for junk. Ditto for lots of raw veggies at your holiday bashes.
Bonus: Above all, beware the baked goods. "Cookies are addictive," says Roizen. "Once you start, it's all over."
5.) Be good, for goodness sake.
Your girlfriend's bringing you home — to her home — for the holidays to "meet the Fockers." Trouble is, last time you met a significant other's parents, you humiliated yourself by using the salad fork for your entree and the butter knife as an assault weapon. Not to worry, says Peter Post of the Emily Post Institute. (Hey — wonder if he knows Peggy?) If you play your utensils right, you can actually convince her snot-nosed, silver-spoon family that they're not good enough for you.
Game Plan: First, bring a gift. Just grab a poinsettia at Safeway for $5.99. Then make sure you go with the flow. If it's apparently a family tradition for the men to whip potatoes for the holiday feast, don't sit in the living room sucking a Bud — grab the tub of butter and help. And make your own damn bed, you lazy lout.
Bonus: Want to ensure a place in your girl's heart? Send her parents a hand-written thank-you note when you get home. They'll love you for it — and none of your buddies will ever find out.
6.) Prepare to break the ice.
You're at your third holiday party this week where you've known no one but the hosts. And every time the opportunity comes to meet someone — such as that delicious blonde sipping Scotch in the corner — all you can think to talk about is college football and rising gas prices. Next time, come to the party prepared with half a dozen ice-breakers to help you strike up chats with strangers.
Game Plan: "You want to say something meaty enough for someone to remember it — and you," says Will Pearson, publisher of mental_floss magazine and editor of the book
mental_floss presents: Condensed Knowledge. So, for Scotch girl, make something up, like, "You know, Mother Teresa was a Scotch-and-soda fan and was often seen nipping the stuff out of a Styrofoam cup. When she ran low, she'd shake the cup and rattle the ice, a signal for the altar boys to give her a refill." Explains Pearson, "You just want something that can make the conversation light," and make you the life — not the lull — of the party.
Bonus: Steer clear of politics, which can make strange bedfellows. Unless, of course, you're into that kind of thing.
7.) Dress like Snazzy Claus.
You finally got that obscenely flexible yoga instructor to come to your buddy's swank New Year's Eve bash. So don't dress like a shlub. Try your best suit on immediately — especially since, over the past year, you've added an inch of muscle to your neck, shoulders, and chest. "It's all about the details — a little tweaking can make all the difference," says Marc Piatek, a personal shopper at Barneys New York in Manhattan. "A great suit that doesn't fit is not a great suit."
Game Plan: Figure your tailor will need a week to let out a snug shoulder seam. And if that suit's already seen the ball drop more than a couple of times, "Keep in mind that you cannot remake a suit." Meaning, it's better to purchase something new from the season. (Hint: Piatek says a classic look with an edge — pattern on pattern shirts and ties, luxury fabrics, or vibrant shirt colors — is always right.)
Bonus: As proud as you are of your pecs, the first two things a woman will notice about a man are the fit of his suit, his shoes, and his watch. So polish the former (Stick to a ormal pair of black ones) and wind up the latter (a dressy timepiece, not a cardio-timing compass-master).
8.) Designate Rudolph to drive your sleigh tonight.
Your drinking buddy is renowned for his wild, annual, no-holds-barred Grinch Bash, where anyone who's a Who shows up. But before you leave, think BAC — as in blood-alcohol content. The legal minimum is .08. That's the blood-alcohol level that can get you nailed for DUI. Not only would it suck to spend anytime whatsoever in jail if you get caught, but if you drive while impaired, you could also seriously hurt yourself, a loved one, or an innocent stranger.
Game Plan: Enjoy yourself all you want — just make sure you leave the keys to the Bentley at home and cab it to the party. Better yet, designate a friend who's "in the program" to be the night's designated driver. Going solo? Then act your age. "Drinking
one or two drinks a night is fine," says RealAge guru Roizen. "Drink more and you're inebriated."
Bonus: If you drive to a party and feel too drunk to drive home, don't hesitate to call a cab. Unless you live in Kabul, your wheels will likely still be there in the morning.
9.) Deck the halls — not your irritating boss.
After 12 months of dealing with this turd, the next nasty e-mail he sends might drive you to snap his pencils. You've got a few dates lined up, but El Jefe may want you to stay late and clean out your cache file. You've got to make a preemptive strike.
Game Plan: "Speak to your superior and tell him you want to express your gratitude for your professional growth," says Stephen Pollan, author of the best-seller Fire Your Boss. "That might make him feel awkward about putting too much pressure on you. Think of it as renewing your vows." Which makes sense — after all, considering how much time you spend at the office, your boss might as well be your wife. Without the cooking skills or PMS.
Bonus: If "the chief" asks you to work on something that takes away from your
social time, take a step back and think about it. Maybe it really does need to get done and
you just have to suck it up. If you think it can wait — or that someone else should be handling it — approach your boss calmly and rationally and explain why.
10.Spa la la la la.
OK, so you're convinced nothing short of a shot of Demerol can ease the tension in your practically paralyzed shoulders. But guess what — a mere 10-minute massage can help you recharge and relax, says massage therapist Carla Ciuffo, co-owner and co-founder of the StoneSpa in Manhattan. No, not that kind of massage, Huggy Bear, but a legitimate mind, body, and spirit rejuvenator.
Game Plan: Try out that treatment with the heated basalt stones from Mexico. (While you're on the premises, add a skin treatment — sure, it's a little Queer Eye-ish, but dry winter weather and holiday stress can make you break out quicker than that Shawshank guy.) And after strong hands have kneaded your back for 10 minutes — hell, splurge for the full 60 — pretend you're Scandinavian and slip into a steam room or a cold pool. It'll be the spiritual equivalent of an ER defibrillator — STAT!
Bonus: Still feeling spa adverse? Ciuffo offers some free — and hands-free — advice: "Head for a Sharper Image store," she says. "I sit in every massage chair there and stay as long as I can without being obnoxious."
11.) Know when to say, "And to all, a good night!"
Every year, your boss's boss throws the annual company yawn-fest. Make that "dinner." And, dammit, you better be there or come the next workday you may find your cubicle has been seriously booby-trapped. But though you're bored to tears, how long do you have to suffer before you're allowed to flee the "festivities"?
Game Plan: "Watch those people who are considered well-regarded, then leave when they do," says Kathleen Reardon, professor of management at USC's Marshall School of Business and author of It's All Politics. "You don't want to be the first — and absolutely not the last." Even more specifically, she adds, "Don't leave before your immediate boss, or right after." Aim to amble out anywhere between 11 to 15 minutes after he does.
Bonus: Try to make tiny connections with your boss — a big smiley high-five, a quick joke and a laugh — then walk away. All he'll remember is that he had a good time with you.
12.) Avoid family affairs.
Just thinking about spending the holidays with family can trip off your nervous tick. Maybe Mom's always laying her "Why haven't you settled down yet, Pumpkin?" schtick on you, while your sister thinks Rogaine is a hilarious stocking stuffer. Or maybe your family thinks a rousing game of Monopoly — where your brothers always fight over who
gets to be the race car — is the best way to spend Christmas Eve. But Santa's got a bulletin for you: Tradition isn't a life sentence. You do not have to participate.
Game Plan: "If a certain kind of event always agitates you, change the context," advises RealAge master Roizen. So skip the board game and take a walk, or volunteer to pick up
last-minute guests from the airport. Or conveniently arrive Christmas morning and leave that afternoon. If your family's truly intolerable, the FBI might have an opening in its Witness Protection Program.
Bonus: If all else fails, take a deep breath and remember: You don't have to do this again for 12 more months.