When we think about the holidays, it's nice to imagine our friends and loved ones opening their gifts with delight. But the sad reality is that many of us take on undue amounts of anxiety in an effort to produce those gifts.

In a just-released NerdWallet study, roughly 30% of consumers admitted that they usually feel stressed out and overwhelmed when shopping for the holidays. These sentiments were fairly consistent across shoppers of all ages. And that's really a shame, because holiday shopping should, in theory, be a fun thing, or at least not a taxing one. If you find the idea of holiday shopping stressful, here are a few tips to make it less painful -- and put some of the joy back into the season.

Woman resting on shopping cart in frustration


1. Create a realistic budget

A big reason so many people find holiday shopping stressful is that they can't afford to be doing it. Nearly 40% of Americans have no savings on hand, which means they're looking at an instant pile of debt just to shower gifts upon others.

If you'd rather keep your anxiety to a minimum this season, figure out exactly how much you can afford to spend on holiday shopping, and stick to that number. And to be clear, by "afford," we're talking about the ability to pay for an item up front, or charge it on a credit card but pay the bill in full by the time it comes due.

Now the good news is that 65% of American consumers set a holiday spending budget. The problem, however, is that the majority of folks who create a budget also wind up exceeding it. If you're going to take the time to put together a budget, be sure to follow it. Last year, 56% of those who shopped for the holidays wound up with credit card debt, so if you don't want that to be you, pay close attention to the budget you set.

2. Research your purchases thoroughly

Another stressful element of holiday shopping is figuring out how to get the best deals on the items you're looking to buy. The problem, of course, is that retailers are fairly quick to advertise sales, but are also known to mark up items beforehand to make it seem like you're getting a deal by shopping at a certain time. That's why you'll really need to do your research before you start shopping -- so that you don't wind up needlessly overpaying for the things on your list.

Once you determine which products you're going to buy, list them all in a spreadsheet. Next, review at least six or seven brick-and-mortar and online retailers, and see what prices they're offering those items for, and when. It could be that you'll need to make multiple shopping trips to get the best deals across the board. Also, be wary of buying items online if shipping isn't included -- a $10 discount could easily get wiped out by a last-minute delivery charge.

Finally, when you do your research, make sure you're actually comparing apples to apples. It's often the case that retailers will offer lower-quality versions of popular items (typically electronics) around the holidays that they can then sell at a reduced cost. This is a particularly common practice on days like Black Friday, when retailers will offer products that are poorly made derivatives of the items you think you're buying. Therefore, you'll need to compare not just product names, but also model numbers and specs, to ensure that you're really getting a deal.

3. Know your credit card rewards

It's hard to avoid the expense of the holidays, but if you're smart about how you use your credit cards, you'll get some relief in the form of cash-back rewards. But be careful -- different cards offer different promotions around the holidays, and if you miss out on a bonus, you'll end up more stressed than when you started. Review your different cards' rewards programs before you start shopping, and figure out which cards you'll use, and when.

Imagine you have a certain store credit card that offers an extra 15% off on purchases made the first week of December. If you need items from that store, then it pays to shop with that card during that specific time frame. Using the right cards is really just a matter of common sense, but organize yourself in advance so you don't wind up making an error along the way.

Though holiday shopping is a stressful experience for a large chunk of Americans, it doesn't have to be. If you set a strict budget, do your research on pricing, and maximize your credit card rewards, you'll be more likely to enjoy the act of acquiring gifts than to resent it.