27 Tips and Tricks for a Stress-Free Holiday Season

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monkeybusinessimages/iStock via Getty Images Plus

The holiday season can be a stressful time of year for many people. But if you approach it armed with these helpful tricks, and a little yuletide cheer, the holidays can be an anxiety-free affair.

1. Buy a few small gifts for emergencies.

A small gift in a brown box with a blue ribbon in a bow around it.
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When unexpected guests drop by, or you get invited to a last-minute gift exchange, it’s nice to have something small on hand to offer, from canned preserves and candles to blankets and cozy socks—so stock up ahead of time!

2. Measure your space before you buy a tree.


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Whether you're going real or fake, picking the right Christmas tree is one of the most important parts of the holiday season—and there's nothing worse than finding the perfect tree then bringing it home ... only to realize it doesn't fit in your space. So before you go head out to the local tree farm or Christmas tree store, measure your space (don't forget to factor in the height of your tree stand). It's also not a bad idea to measure the door you want to squeeze the tree through. And before you get it inside, prune any areas that are unruly or extend outwardly from the shape of the tree. Keep in mind that pine trees tend to have longer needles, and fir trees tend to have softer needles. If you have allergies, consider a spruce tree; its scent is less pungent and fragrant than pine or fir. You can also go artificial, in which case you'll want to make sure you bend the branches and fluff the tree to hide the spaces between each layer. Then light a pine-scented candle to make it smell like the real thing.

3. Before putting your tree in its stand, cut it around the base.

A person using a chainsaw to cut a small disc off the base of a tree.
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Cut a 1/2-inch thick disk off the base of the tree trunk to make it easier for the tree to absorb water. Your tree stand should have a deep reservoir; once your tree is set up, fill it to the top. After that, add water daily so it doesn't dry out—you'll need about 1 quart of water per inch of the trunk in diameter.

4. Use a PVC pipe and a funnel to get water to your tree.

An easy way to water your tree without getting gook or needles all over you is to place a 3- to 5-foot 3/4-inch PVC pipe into the reservoir with a 45-degree elbow connector and a funnel attached to its top. Then all you have to do to water the tree is pour water into the funnel, so it travels through the pipe into the reservoir.

5. Make room for big presents by elevating your Christmas tree.

A big pile of brightly wrapped presents next to a Christmas tree.
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Trying to shove large presents under a low tree can be pretty frustrating, not to mention messy—so give your tree a boost. Place a few paint cans in a wide cardboard box to keep it sturdy, then place your tree on top. (You can also use a block of wood.) As an added bonus, your elevated tree appears larger than it really is and has a bigger presence in the room.

6. Use hand sanitizer to get rid of tree resin on your hands.

Close-up of a person putting hand sanitizer on their hands.
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Let’s face it: Getting a real tree for Christmas is really messy. When you inevitably get tree sap on your hands and clothes, using soap and water to remove the sticky resin isn't the solution. Instead, trying using hand sanitizer. It contains alcohol, which will break up the resin on your skin in only a matter of seconds. If you don’t have hand sanitizer on hand, cooking oil, peanut butter, or even toothpaste should also do the trick.

7. Use a lint roller to get rid of errant pine needles.

Regular watering of your tree will greatly reduce the number of pine needles that fall off it—but your tree will still shed, and those needles will end up everywhere. And even vacuums can't get every little needle. One of the best ways to clean up loose pine needles from your furniture is using an oversized lint roller. It might seem awkward, but it does the trick. If you’d rather stand while getting rid of the needles, consider buying a rubber broom, which works even on carpets: Use shorter strokes, which will build a static charge and help you pick up needles quickly. If there are still small pine needles hanging around, use a piece of duct tape (sticky side out) wrapped around your hand to dab needles off the floor.

8. Keep fake trees from tipping over with a bag of rice.

If you’ve got an artificial Christmas tree this year, make sure you use a hefty weight around the base so it doesn’t tip over when you’re decorating (or after you're done). A 10-pound bag of rice on the back of the base of the tree should keep it sturdy; you can also use a few bricks to balance out the weight.

9. Trim your tree in the right order.

White and red ornaments and pinecones on a Christmas tree.
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Hanging and wrapping garland and tinsel should be the first thing you do after you set up your tree. Use a simple burlap garland or tinsel to fill out any shallow spots or holes. It’s also an easy way to spruce up your tree if you’re using an artificial one or you don’t have a lot of ornaments and other holiday decorations. For every foot of your tree, you should wrap about 9 feet of garland or tinsel around it. Next, add lights, starting from the bottom and working your way up. Real Simple recommends placing the lights randomly, putting some near the trunk and some near the front to create depth. For every foot of your tree, you should use about 100 lights (or more if they're particularly small). You can also use large and small sized lights around your Christmas tree to make it look fuller. Then it's time to hang your ornaments. Make sure ahead of time that you have enough hooks for each ornament you use (or pick up some green florist’s wire, which blends in better than traditional hooks). If you have pets, use ribbons instead of hooks, so your cat or dog doesn’t get hurt if they play with the ornaments. (Also consider placing ornaments on higher branches so there’s less a risk of your pet knocking one over—or chewing on one.) When placing ornaments around the tree, put heavier and larger ones on the sturdier inside branches, and the smaller ones on the outer tips. Lastly, place the topper at the very top.

10. Set up a spreadsheet to track budgets and presents.

A spreadsheet for tracking holiday gifts.

Martha Stewart recommends making a list, separated out by category, before you head out to do your holiday shopping, which is a solid tip. But if you celebrate the holidays in several different locations, or need to buy for a ton of people on a budget, you might need to go a step further and create a holiday spreadsheet, which Mental Floss's editor-in-chief swears by. It should have rows for gift recipients and where they're located; the gift you're planning to buy; how much you have budgeted for that gift, and how much you actually spent; and whether or not the gift has been wrapped. This not only helps track where you are with your shopping, wrapping, and transporting of gifts, but also with budgets. Creating a new sheet within the tracking document every year will allow you to see what you've bought for everyone on your list in previous years, so you don't accidentally repeat yourself.

11. Keep your receipts.

A person sitting in front of a computer with receipts.
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Unfortunately, not every gift will be a hit—or a fit. So keep your receipts together in a safe place, writing the recipient’s name on each one, in case they need to make a return or exchange. (Or ask for a gift receipt when purchasing the gift, and tuck it into the packaging so that the recipient can take care of any returns on their own, without the awkward task of having to ask you for the receipt.)

12. Wrap first, add decorations later.

An orange cat sitting on wrapping paper as a person wraps presents in the background.
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Regardless of whether you call it a gift or a present, Martha Stewart offers this wrapping tip: Wrap the presents first and leave the decorations for later. If you have to travel, you’ll be able to easily stack the wrapped gifts, and you won’t smush your decorations. When wrapping or decorating, keep these expert tips in mind.

13. Remove packaging before wrapping gifts.

Ripping through wrapping paper is fun for kids. What's not fun for kids (or adults) is trying to get through the tape, zip ties, screws, and heavy plastic that surround their new toys. Valuable playtime is at stake, so give your kids a break by removing the toy from its packaging before you gift wrap it. Use a package opener tool to make quick work of the maddening manufacturer's packaging before placing the toy back into the outer box and then wrapping it. If a toy needs some assembly, take the toy out of its package and put it together before you wrap it with wrapping paper. Now when your kids open their gifts on Christmas Day, they can spend more time playing with their toys, and you can spend more time relaxing.

14. Use a toilet paper roll to hold wrapping paper.

An empty roll of toilet paper on a blue background.
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The best way to secure and hold your wrapping paper in place for storage is to use an old toilet paper roll. Cut the tube longways down the middle to open it up. When you’re done wrapping, take the opened toilet paper roll and wrap it around your wrapping paper like a napkin ring. The wrapping paper will stay secure and not unroll when you store it. If you have multiple rolls of wrapping paper leftover after the holidays, store it in an old waste paper basket or hang them in a garment bag until next year. It will keep them neat and tidy, instead of loose on the top shelf of your closet.

15. Use a paper towel holder for easy access to ribbons.

A curly green ribbon in the shape of a wreath on a red background.
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A paper towel holder can be used for more than just paper towels: Place a few spools of gift wrapping ribbon in a paper towel holder from largest to smallest from the bottom up. This is the quickest way to organize and dispense ribbons to finish off the perfect holiday gift.

16. Stock your kitchen with basics and supplies ahead of the holiday meal.

A pantry with flour and sugar and cocoa.
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Nothing will send stress skyrocketing than starting to cook a meal and realizing you don’t have an ingredient you need. To make sure you’re covered, go shopping for essential ingredients ahead of time—just make sure you don’t use them all before it’s time to prep for your party. According to experts, the best time to shop for specific ingredients for your meal is a couple of days before the holiday. Make sure you bring a list so you don’t forget anything.

17. Make a meal plan—and stick to it.

After you’ve gotten your guest list together, and determined whether anyone on the list has a food allergy or dietary restriction, it’s time to choose which dishes you’ll serve. You can keep things simple—and your sanity intact—by serving no-cook appetizers. Once you’ve determined what you want to serve, it’s time to go shopping, and though it might be tempting to deviate from the plan, don’t do it! It will only cause stress.

18. Set reminders and put together a to-do list well before the event.

A notebook with "To Do List" written in it on a table with Christmas presents, decorations, and cookies.
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It’s also helpful to set reminders for when you need to do certain things, like calling the butcher, so that you don’t forget anything in the run-up to the holiday. Give yourself a list of other little things to do every day—like decorating, for example—so you don’t have to do it all immediately before the day.

19. Forgo individual cocktails for a batch of punch.

A bowl of mulled wine.
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Individual cocktails might be classy, but avoid them; they’ll keep you behind the bar when you should be chatting with guests. Instead, Real Simple advises making a big batch of punch. You could also go with Martha Stewart’s suggestion: a self-serve cocktail bar.

20. Set everything up the night before the party.

A table set for dinner with a plate topped by a napkin tied with a string that holds two cinnamon sticks and a sprig of a tree to the napkin. A pinecone is in the background.
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The key to a stress-free event, according to Good Housekeeping, is to set up for your party the night before. Rearrange furniture, set the table, and make sure there’s plenty of toilet paper in the bathroom. You can also prep ingredients the night before to make the day of the party a little less stressful. Putting together a list of what needs to happen day-of can keep you on track, too.

21. Use bread to clean up broken ornaments or glass.

Whether you drop an ornament or your party guest drops a glass, don't reach for the vacuum—the glass can damage it. Instead, reach for the bread bag: After sweeping up the big pieces with a broom, you can easily clean up tiny shards with a slice of bread; just press the slice onto the floor where the glass was shattered, then toss it out.

22. If you’re flying for the holiday, pack light—and smart.

A green suitcase with a santa hat on top, on a blue background.
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Getting hit with an overweight baggage fee is no way to kick off holiday travel, so make sure you pack light. Use these tips to make the most of the space in your suitcase, especially when you’re packing winter clothes (or for basic economy) and don’t forget to swap a few belongings with the people you’re traveling with so that you’ll still have some things on hand if one of your suitcases gets lost. And if you’re flying with gifts, leave the wrapping for later in case the TSA needs to examine them.

23. Know what to say and do if your flight gets canceled.

According to Cranky Concierge’s Brett Snyder, the first thing you should do when your flight is canceled is call the airline—even if you’re in line to speak with a counter agent. “This way, you’re essentially cutting the line in front of you,” Snyder told Real Simple. And no matter what the situation, remember to be polite; Snyder even recommends offering the agent a sandwich, which can set you apart from other irritated customers. “Don’t forget that ticket agents have been doing this all day, and many haven’t had a break,” he said.

Here are a few other tips for what to do if your flight gets delayed or canceled.

24. Get your car’s maintenance done before you travel.

A mechanic adjusts something under the hood of a car.
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Getting over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house will be impossible if your car breaks down. The Better Business Bureau recommends getting any necessary car maintenance done before you make a long trip, and to have a car safety kit—which should include a blanket, radio, first aid kit, and jumper cables, among other things—in your vehicle just in case.

25. Store strings of lights on a hanger.

Tangled christmas lights in a box.
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When the holidays are over, prepare yourself for a stress-free season next year with a little prep work. Christmas lights are a pain to untangle every year. Instead of messing around with a rat’s nest, wrap your lights around a plastic coat hanger or cardboard paper towel roll. It will be easier to untangle and unwrap as you string them on a Christmas tree or window. Be sure to plug the ends into each other to keep your lights secure and tangle free.

26. Use coffee tins, apple containers, or egg cartons to store ornaments.

Instead of throwing ornaments in an old shoebox, place medium to large ornaments in an old coffee tin or cheap plastic drinking cups. Clean out an old coffee tin and gently place larger Christmas decorations wrapped in newspaper inside. For medium-sized ornaments, store them in plastic drinking cups inside of a larger plastic storage bin. Use an empty egg carton to store smaller Christmas ornaments. Plastic apple containers or paper beverage trays work great, too. This is a good way to keep ornaments tidy, compact, and easy to access next year.

27. Save time for next year by wrapping your fake tree in plastic wrap, ornaments and all.

Taking down a Christmas tree is never as fun as putting it up, so if you’re using an artificial tree, simply wrap the entire Christmas tree with lights and decorations on it with plastic wrap. Once you’ve wrapped it around the tree a few times, store it in your basement or garage. When Christmas comes again the following year, it will be easier to set up and display for another holiday season.

25 Gift Cards That Give You—and Your Recipient—the Best Bang for Your Buck

flyparade/iStock via Getty Images
flyparade/iStock via Getty Images

Though gift cards can definitely solve your annual conundrum over what to buy those hard-to-please people on your list, deciding on a gift card is the easy part—deciding which gift card to give them, however, is where the challenge comes in.

To help you narrow it down, WalletHub devised a multi-factor ranking system for gift cards of all types, from home improvement outlets like Lowe’s to subscription services like Netflix. Researchers analyzed popularity (based on search volume), average buyer’s discount across major gift card exchange sites, average resale value, retailer ratings on popular review sites, and shipping fees, and then assigned an overall score to each of America’s 100 largest retailers.

According to the study, your best option this year is a Target gift card, with an average buyer’s discount of 5.76 percent, a resale value of $77.12, and a retailer rating of 3.09 out of 5.

But before you stock up on Target gift cards for your many friends and family members, you might want to peruse the rest of WalletHub’s data. IKEA, for example, which tied for third place with Home Depot and eBay, boasts an average buyer’s discount of 10.85 percent.

The top performers from the food industry were Starbucks, Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s, and Chipotle, which all tied for fourth place (among several other companies, Netflix and iTunes included) with 50 points apiece.

Even if you’ve already decided which gift cards you’re going with this holiday season, it’s still worth looking at WalletHub’s data before you buy them to make sure you’re getting a discount comparable to (or better than) the average. And, if there’s a particularly choosy recipient on your list who’ll likely try to resell their gift card, perhaps pick one with an especially high resale value, like Costco’s $84.60 or Walmart’s $84.09.

Check out the rankings below, including overall score, and find out the full details from WalletHub’s study here.

  1. Target // Score: 70
  1. Walmart // Score: 60
  1. Sephora // Score: 60
  1. eBay // Score: 55
  1. Home Depot // Score: 55
  1. IKEA // Score: 55
  1. iTunes // Score: 50
  1. Starbucks // Score: 50
  1. Costco // Score: 50
  1. Chick-fil-A // Score: 50
  1. Netflix // Score: 50
  1. McDonald’s // Score: 50
  1. Fandango // Score: 50
  1. Chipotle // Score: 50
  1. REI // Score: 50
  1. Old Navy // Score: 50
  1. H&M // Score: 50
  1. Disney // Score: 45
  1. Google Play // Score: 45
  1. Best Buy // Score: 45
  1. Macy's // Score: 45
  1. Lowe's // Score: 45
  1. Subway // Score: 45
  1. Amazon // Score: 40
  1. Gamestop // Score: 40

The 20 Most Expensive ZIP Codes in America

The San Mateo Bridge runs along San Francisco's Bay Area, home to many of America's most expensive ZIP codes.
The San Mateo Bridge runs along San Francisco's Bay Area, home to many of America's most expensive ZIP codes.
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You don’t need to be a real estate agent to know that New York and California are two notoriously expensive places to live. However, those inconceivably high property values aren’t just contained to mansions in Beverly Hills or office buildings in Midtown Manhattan.

Each year, PropertyShark crunches the numbers on real estate prices across the country to discover which ZIP codes are truly the most expensive—and this year, multiple ZIP codes across California and New York once again reigned supreme. Instead of analyzing asking prices, PropertyShark looked at each area’s median sale prices, which more accurately reflect how much people are actually willing to pay for each property based on supply and demand.

At the top of the list for the third straight year is Atherton’s 94027 in California’s Bay Area, home to Silicon Valley venture capitalists, sports figures like Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry, and more. The median sale price for real estate there is $7,050,000, and the luxury housing in the region definitely isn’t owned by the Currys’ neighbors alone—nearby ZIP codes that also cracked the top 20 include Palo Alto’s 94301 and 94306, Los Altos's 94022 and 94024, and several others.

top 10 most expensive zip codes
PropertyShark

South of the Bay Area, Los Angeles and Orange County ZIP codes make impressive appearances on the list, too. Los Angeles’s Santa Monica (90402) and Beverly Hills (90210, of course) took the third and fourth spots, respectively, with median sale prices just over $4 million, and Orange County’s Newport Beach and Corona Del Mar also made the top 20.

Overall, California took a staggering 16 of the top 20 spots, and New York was the second-place state with four spots. Surprisingly, the most expensive New York ZIP code isn’t in the heart of the Big Apple—it’s farther east, in a Long Island village called Sagaponack, which is, unsurprisingly, in the Hamptons.

The top 20 (which is actually the top 22, because of two ties) also includes a Boston ZIP code and one in Medina, Washington, which borders Lake Washington.

Scroll on to find out just how expensive each ZIP code is, and read more about PropertyShark’s study here.

  1. Atherton, California (94027) // $7,050,000
  2. Sagaponack, New York (11962) // $4,300,000
  3. Santa Monica, California (90402) // $4,154,000
  4. Beverly Hills, California (90210) // $4,080,000
  5. New York, New York (10007) // $3,900,000
  6. Boston, Massachusetts (02199) // $3,669,000
  7. Palo Alto, California (94301) // $3,522,000
  8. New York, New York (10013) // $3,515,000
  9. Los Altos, California (94022) // $3,450,000
  10. Ross, California (94957) // $3,350,000
  11. Portola Valley, California (94028) // $3,300,000
  12. Medina, Washington (98039) // $3,200,000
  13. Los Altos, California (94024) // $3,150,000
  14. Newport Beach, California (92661) // $3,140,000
  15. Newport Beach, California (92662) // $2,900,000
  16. Corona Del Mar, California (92625) and Stinson Beach, California (94970) // $2,800,000
  17. Palo Alto, California (94306) // $2,751,000
  18. New York, New York (10282) // $2,660,000
  19. Los Gatos, California (95030) and Burlingame, California (94010) // $2,630,000
  20. Santa Barbara , California (93108) // $2,620,000

[h/t PropertyShark]

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