Christmas shouldn’t come as a surprise. It comes around the same time each year. But it can be an expensive business. So what can you do about Christmas when you are skint?
According to the Money Advice Service, one in three (30%) people in the UK feel pressured to spend more than they can afford over Christmas. Fuelled by advertising, social media and family expectations, we put so much pressure on ourselves to make the festive season perfect, even if it means getting into debt.
For many of us, giving expensive gifts, having a beautifully decorated home and hosting the best Christmas meal has become a show of our own wealth and success.
How is it that a tradition that is supposed to be about joy, peace and Christianity has become so fraught with stress? You may be plagued by questions such as ‘Can I buy gifts that will thrill my husband, partner and/or children without breaking the bank? Who shall we spend time with over Christmas? Will I receive gifts I don’t like?’
It’s not just money that can be in short supply, but time too, as requests come in from schools to attend Christmas events, from work to go to office celebrations, and invitations from friends and family to visit.
So how can you reduce the pressure of Christmas and make it more fun without busting your bank balance or maxing out your credit cards? Can you still have an enjoyable Christmas when you are skint?
Managing Christmas when you are skint
Set a budget
The most basic way to manage Christmas when you are skint is to make a budget for it and save in advance. I usually start putting away small amounts of money each month in January or February.
Write a list of all of the people you feel you need to buy for and how much you want to spend, the amount needed for food and drink, decorations, outings, etc. Calculate the total. Can you afford that much? If not, think about how you can scale down. Read on for ideas on how to do this.
I have a spreadsheet that I revise each year, as appropriate. If I can’t afford the amount I calculate using the spreadsheet, I start to look for ways to reduce costs.
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A cautionary tale
I often tell the story of the conversations I had with my own family about the escalating cost of Christmas. As one of four children with two surviving parents, four lots of husbands/wives and a growing number of children between us, buying for everyone had become too much for me.
I tried suggesting a token gift for the adults with a maximum budget of £5, having a second hand challenge (buying a gift from a charity shop that might be nice or more of a joke gift) or everybody going for something hand made. There was little enthusiasm for any of these suggestions.
Everybody seemed to have enough spare cash that spending at Christmas wasn’t a worry to them. I was the only one who felt anxious, especially when my first marriage broke down and I became a single parent. It took a while to succeed – several years, in fact – but in the end we agreed to buy for the kids up to the point where they began working. The adults were all put in a secret Santa draw with a budget of £20 each.
This meant that instead of buying for ten adults, we only needed to buy for one. As the years have gone on and the children have grown, they have joined the secret Santa. We have gone from buying for nine children to buying for just three who are still at school (plus our own adult children, of course).
Now everybody agrees that it is a huge relief. The time, money and mental energy saved is a gift in itself.
Give yourself permission to scale down
If you face Christmas when you are skint, give yourself permission to scale down if you need to. Think about how you might do that. Go through your list or spreadsheet and revise the amount you will spend on gifts. Are there some people you would prefer not to buy for?
For example, have you got into the habit of buying for friends and their children? Could you have a chat with your friends and explain that you can no longer afford to do this? Perhaps you could suggest you all get together for a Christmas craft session instead?
We rarely gave presents to teachers. Having a school secretary as a sister and several friends who are teachers, I realised just how many gifts of chocolates, toiletries and stationery they receive. A nice, home made card or picture will probably be more appreciated.
The office Christmas party
When I worked in an office, we had a work do (which we had to pay for), a team meal out, a management meal out, various drinks gatherings, a lunch time pot luck buffet, a whole office secret Santa and a team secret Santa. I realised early on that I couldn’t afford to do everything so I stuck to my team meal out and secret Santa.
It’s different if you work for a company who pay for your Christmas events – in which case, go for it! My daughter was lucky enough to go to Winter Wonderland in London one year, followed by a party on a boat on the Thames. I worked for the local council who, like me, had to spend according to their budget (which, for employee Christmas events, was precisely nothing).
It can feel awkward to say no to invitations, but in my experience, telling your work colleagues that you don’t have the money to do everything, or you are focussing your spending on your children, or that you are saving for next year’s holiday/new kitchen/house deposit, will be accepted at face value.
Don’t apologise for living within your means and staying out of debt.
Christmas food – it’s just one day!
The Christmas meal. Much anticipated and enjoyed, nevertheless expectations are for it to be the best dinner of the year. This puts huge pressure on the cook, and can cost a small fortune.
On top of that, many of us eat a special Christmas breakfast, tea, Christmas eve and Boxing Day meal too! We spend too much money, and tend to buy far more than we can eat, leading to the need to eat leftovers in some form until the new year (or worse, food waste). How many of us stuff our faces until we are so full we can barely move, drink too much alcohol, and then feel guilty at piling on the pounds?
Try to remember Christmas is just a couple of days. Plan for and buy just what you need and can afford. There is no need to purchase a big turkey unless you are cooking for a crowd (and if you are broke, try to scale that down as much as you can). Many people prefer other, cheaper meat anyway. It’s just a glorified roast at the end of the day!
If no one really likes Christmas pudding, then buy what they do like. There’s nothing wrong with a frozen Viennetta for dessert if that’s what your kids enjoy!
Make your own traditions
One good way to approach Christmas when you are skint, is to make it about spending time together with the people you love instead of focussing solely on gifts. For most children, the holiday has become about waking up as early as possible to huge piles of presents. They won’t remember most of these gifts. However, they probably will remember the activities you enjoyed together.
I am not suggesting expecting your kids to accept activities instead of gifts. However, making Christmas about quality time with them rather than working as much as you can to buy them more and more stuff can be more rewarding and make them more appreciative of what they do receive.
You don’t have to spend lots of money on Christmas events. Rather, you could get creative and find free or cheap activities. Make your own Christmas traditions!
Suggestions for fun frugal things to do at Christmas
There are lots of fun things to do at at Christmas when you are skint. Here are some suggestions:
Find a Christmas carol service. Our Christmas tradition when my daughters were younger was to attend the Christmas eve Children’s service at the local church. They were convinced the ‘sleepy biscuits’ they were given on the way out made drift off more easily!
Make a Christmas family traditions calendar as suggested by Cass at Diary of a Frugal Family.
Visit your local town centre in the evening to see the Christmas lights and find the best Christmas houses in your area.
Check your local council website for free events. Ours usually has the turning on of the Christmas lights, combined with a market, carol singers, dance acts and more. They also have one free event each year in early December when you can access our castle for free.
Do Christmas crafts and present making using what you have, along with recycled materials. We still have some of the painted pine cones, home made paper decorations and a snowman made from cotton wool on a cardboard loo roll tube created by my daughters!
Watch a Christmas movie on TV with some popcorn and a few treats.
Do some Christmas baking. There are some great ideas on the BBC Good Food website.
Make some of your own Christmas presents.
Have a toy declutter and take to the charity shop or sell good quality items. Get the children involved in this so that they learn to let things go to make space for the new.
Decorate the tree together and make some baubles.
Make a ginger bread house. If you don’t fancy starting this from scratch, you can pick up kits pretty cheaply.
Host a pot luck Christmas party. Your guests bring a dish and something to drink and you all share, so the cost is minimal.
Make your own Christmas cards. You can pick up materials from the pound shop or places like Home Bargains and the Works.
Make gift tags from last year’s Christmas cards. A pair of pinking sheers, a hole punch and some ribbon are all handy for this.
Go for a winter walk in the woods. Get your wellies and warm clothes on and get outside. This is even better if you are lucky enough to get some snow!
Send a letter to Santa – you can find out how to do that here.
Visit a Christmas market. If you are lucky enough to have a good market at Christmas, have a walk round with the family. If you are taking children, come to an understanding in advance that you won’t be making lots of purchases but will have a treat, such as a burger or a hot chocolate.
“…aside from spending beyond our means, the biggest financial mistake we make is spending badly.” Amy Dacyczyn – The Tightwad Gazette
We have all experienced the feelings of guilt about receiving items we don’t want. Let people know what you like so you receive gifts you will use. Books, bath oil, makeup – things you perhaps wouldn’t buy for yourself when you are on a budget.
Likewise, listen to your family to pick up hints about what they would appreciate. If you still have no idea, ask them for some ideas. Presents don’t have to be a surprise. In fact, I much prefer to buy something I know the recipient will really like.
If they won’t give you any clues, some good generic gift ideas for most people are food and drink, vouchers for stores, restaurants, cinemas, etc. Socks and pyjamas may seem dull, but are at least likely to be used.
Be wary of experiences unless you are positive they will be used before they expire. Mr S was bought a zorb experience – where you get inside an inflatable ball and bounce down a hill. However, he was recovering from sciatica and the idea terrified me, so we ended up giving it away! Some of them also involve travel to get to, which adds a cost to the gift, so bear that in mind.
Don’t be ashamed to buy second hand
I pretty much always buy used books from the charity shop as stocking fillers. It’s easy enough to pick them up for 50p each or less, often in immaculate condition.
One year, when I was especially skint, I started buying my presents in the summer from boot sales. I found a remarkable number of items that were new, nearly new, or could be regarded as vintage!
A thoughtful and useful gift is just as thoughtful and useful whether you buy it new or used. If the recipient is concerned with environmental issues, they may be very pleased. I am certainly very happy to receive a pre-loved item.
When you are faced with buying for children at Christmas when you are skint, Facebook Marketplace is a great place to find second hand toys and bikes local to you.
The time factor
It’s still the case in my experience that the bulk of the Christmas organisation and work is done by women. We are often trying to keep all of the traditions going, whilst holding down jobs and running a household.
Scaling down present buying and the number of events you host or attend, can make the whole process more enjoyable and less stressful.
Setting a realistic budget, managing expectations and having honest conversations with your loved ones can make all the difference when you are doing Christmas when you are skint. Making time for fun is also important, but you don’t have to spend a fortune to enjoy the festive season.
What are your best tips for having a happy Christmas on a budget?