"It's really tough," said Peterson, a hospital registration clerk who contacted CNN through iReport.com. "I feel pretty guilty this holiday season."
Last year, Peterson and her husband, who works as a graphic artist, spent about $600 on gifts for their 3-year-old daughter. This year, Peterson wonders whether they'll have enough money to pay the electric bill and buy groceries.
"It's killing my husband not to be able to buy me a gift this year," she added, "but our bills are three and four weeks behind." iReport.com: 'I'm right there with everyone else'
Peterson is not alone. More than a million Americans lost their jobs this year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many will be faced with tough choices about tightening their budgets during the holiday season.
"Any time there is a loss, it can be felt stronger, the pain can be more acute during the holidays," Harris said. "That includes a loss of a loved one, loss of a job or loss of a spouse through divorce."
Add in unrealistic expectations and pressures for the perfect Thanksgiving, Christmas or Hanukkah, and Harris says it's a recipe for disappointment and depression.
She urged families to re-focus their expectations and take a fresh look at what the holidays really mean.
"Give yourself permission to scale back. It is OK not to buy a lot of gifts," Harris suggested. "Instead of giving everyone a gift, families should pull names. At the office, bring in baked goods, which can be cheaper than buying many gifts."
Robyn Freedman Spizman, co-author of the new book "Do Your Giving While You Are Living," stressed that "there are endless strategies for creating gifts that are meaningful that don't cost a fortune."
She suggested that for some parents or grandparents, this might be the year to pass down a family heirloom to a loved one. There is typically no cost involved, and the gift will have special meaning.
Spizman also recommended giving the gift of "togetherness." Rather than traveling out of town for the holidays, she said, go sight-seeing in your own city.
"For the kids, make it a surprise with a picnic and bundle up. Bring a blanket, and make it an old-fashioned day like what families used to do," she added.
Show your children where you grew up, and re-create old times.
She encouraged families to be resourceful while gift giving. One idea is to clip a year's worth of coupons and categorize them in an inexpensive file folder.
If you have some money to spend, consider giving practical presents such as gas cards. Spizman suggested adding a note that reads: "Happy holidays to someone who is going places."
Annette Peterson regrets that her family won't be going anywhere during the holidays. Her husband has applied for a second job at the local Wal-Mart to help make ends meet.
Said Peterson, "We are giving ourselves the gift of paying our electric bill on time and keeping our Internet service for one more month so I can keep job hunting."