Christmas doesn’t have to break the bank - see our tips for cutting costs without scrimping on the goodwill

Christmas gifts under tree

Christmas gifts under tree - Credit: www.jupiterimages.com

Christmas doesn’t have to break the bank. Sheena Grant has some ideas to cut costs

For many people, it’s the most expensive - and stressful - time of the year, writes Sheena Grant.

Christmas is meant to be the season of goodwill but pressure to meet children’s expectations, buy gifts for an ever-expanding list of friends and family and provide a festive feast are in danger of turning Yuletide into a festival of debt-inducing consumer competition.

The Centre for Retail Research found that the average household spend at Christmas last year was £775 and £216 of that was shelled out on food and drink.

With a few weeks still to go until the big day there is time to put a plan into action for things to be different. Here’s how:


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Plan a budget

This is the single best piece of advice you can follow to ensure you have a Christmas you can afford, rather than one that casts a shadow over your life for months to come.

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Instead of starting with a wish-list of every longed for gadget, gizmo and gift, every drink and foodstuff imaginable, start with a budget.

How much can you afford to spend on Christmas and what are your priorities with the money you have available?

Once you have a budget, make a list - and stick to it, however tempting the festive displays and siren calls of in-store seasonal music.

Where does the money come from?

It’s a good idea to put a little money aside for Christmas throughout the year, or even to stagger present-buying across several months. That way, the financial hit is spread more evenly.

Another good way to help pay for the big day is to save up store loyalty vouchers to spend on Christmas fare. I usually do this with my Co-op dividend. It makes a big difference.

There are credit cards that offer cash-back or money-off coupons too. I have one with a major high street store that has yielded coupons of £15, with which I can buy a present for someone.

Who gets presents and do they really need them?

This is a contentious subject but worth considering: it could slash your spending and end the merry-go-round of obligated present buying.

Before you start shouting ‘Scrooge’, hang on a minute.

I’m not suggesting parents or grandparents should give up buying for children but what about that ever-expanding circle of friends, extended family members and even work colleagues we somehow end up exchanging gifts with?

For many people, banning unnecessary Christmas gifts could be like the lifting of a huge burden.

Make a pact with friends or relatives to avoid embarrassing misunderstandings. You might find that raising the subject is a popular move. After all, who hasn’t received a gift they really have no use for or struggled to find the money and inspiration to buy one for someone else?

If you think such a move is a step too far perhaps you could consider a Secret Santa with a £5 or £10 cap on gifts. That way, everyone gets something but no-one has to buy more than one thing.

Teaching children Christmas isn’t all about them

This can be a tricky one, especially when your little ones present you with a list as long as your arm and tell you that as Santa and his elves make the gifts, money really is no object.

But even if you could afford it, would it be a good idea to instill the notion in children that materialism is the pinnacle of life’s ambitions and achievements?

Last year, my son bought little presents for close family members from his own money and gave a small gift to a charity of his choice. He enjoyed the experience more than he had thought he would and this year, has been planning to do something similar unprompted.

Buying more modest gifts for pre-school children is easy really - they’re just as likely to spend hours playing with the packaging as with the toy itself. All that changes when they get to school. To be the parent of a school-aged child is to listen to a daily diatribe about who has got what among their friends and how they want it too.

But trying to keep up with these competitive demands just ups the ante for everyone and the pressure just keeps on growing. Set a limit that’s right for you when buying for your children and try to make them see the bigger picture at Christmas.

Meal planning

Food and drink shopping is one of the big Christmas expenses. Good planning is the key to affordability.

Be realistic about how much food you really need and then shop around for the best prices.

If you don’t want to waste food - or money - www.lovefoodhatewaste.com has a handy portion calculator, recipe ideas and lots of other advice for Christmas meal planning.

Top tips include making a Christmas meal and menu plan to avoid buying too much “just in case”; have one or two meals in the freezer for unexpected guests or unforeseen eventualities and freeze leftovers - forgotten food is often pushed to the back of the fridge and ends up getting wasted. Even leftover wine and beer can be frozen in plastic bags, tubs or ice cube trays.

If you’re hosting a big Christmas dinner you could divide providing of courses or parts of the main meal with your guests. If you’re going away for Christmas, freeze any unused milk in ice cube trays so you’ll always have enough for a cup of tea, whatever time you arrive home.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas add a few seasonal items to your usual shop to spread affordability and avoid a mad trolley dash as time gets short.

Pre-prepared and packaged Christmas goods cost a fortune. It’s far cheaper to cook from scratch. Mince pies can be made and frozen and Christmas cakes made well in advance (I did mine at the weekend).

Don’t be a retail snob when you shop for food. Budget supermarkets can save you a fortune on some items.

And remember, the shops are only closed for Christmas day itself so resist the panic-buying mode that many people seem to go into around public holiday times.

Christmas tree and decorations

A real Christmas tree is lovely but it has a few major problems - you have to pay a hefty premium to get one that doesn’t drop needles and it’s incredibly wasteful to grow a tree, use it for just a few days and then discard it.

You could go the fake tree route - at least that way you use it again and again - or consider alternatives to the traditional tree.

How about making a tree-shaped outline on the wall using green string or easy-peeling Japanese washi tape? You could decorate it with lights, tinsel and bauble-shaped stickers.

Another idea for what I think could be a stunning alternative tree is to use a few bare branches sprayed with white, silver or gold for a festive theme and hung with baubles and lights.

Last year, I bought a foot-tall, bare rooted tree with the idea it could be potted and brought into the house each Christmas. But it’s only about an inch or two taller than it was last year. Clearly one for the long-term!

Christmas bunting, gift-tags and even DIY cards can be made from the cards you were sent last year or make paper chains and even gift wrapping from old glossy magazines.

Making presents

If you have the time, this is a great alternative to buying gifts.

For the not quite home-made look, pop along to a ceramic cafe and paint a piece of pottery for a loved one. We’ve done this and got two unique gifts for about £7 each.

You could also make jams and preserves or your own posh-looking chocoates by buying bars or cheap milk, plain and white chocolate, melting each in a bain marie, pouring layers (waiting for each to set before adding another) into an ice-cube mould and leaving in the fridge overnight before popping out and packaging.

Make and package your own festive biscuits or how about making bath bombs using sodium bicarbonate, food colouring and flavouring (you can find ‘recipes’ online).

Another idea for a truly unique gift is to write your own ‘cheques’, not for money but for time - perhaps a few hours’ babysitting or treats like a children’s sleepover or a day of being waited on.

Buying presents online

For those who prefer to do their Christmas shopping at home, there are ways to earn cashback from online purchases from major retailers by using a cashback website. I haven’t tried this myself but apparently, when you buy gifts you will receive a percentage of the value of your shopping and the cashback will be paid directly into your account.

Making money and thinking ahead

Have a pre-Christmas clear-out and sell unwanted things to generate extra cash.

If you’ve still got any energy left for shopping when January comes around think ahead for next year, picking up cards, wrapping paper and perhaps even one or two gifts for next year in the sale.

The magic of Christmas

Sometimes the simplist things create the most special memories: a winter walk, a carol service or nativity, thinking of someone in need or seeing ‘Father Christmas’ as he makes his annual deliveries on a cloudless night.

We did last year and it was truly magical. We plan to do the same this Christmas Eve. Apparently, Santa will be overhead in the UK between about 4.40 and 5pm this year.

Visit http://spotthestation.nasa.gov/sightings/ for more.

Share your thrifty Christmas tips using #ThriftyLiving on twitter and Instagram

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