This time of year can be quite horribly painful on the bank accounts. By the time you've bought the presents, done the wrapping, sent the cards and loaded the fridge ready for Xmas dinner, you can be left with more of a feeling of dread in relation to the January credit card statement than the Christmas cheer you're meant to be feeling! It's easy to fall into the trap of feeling like you have to spend a fortune to make Christmas a success for the family, but there are ways and means of reducing the pain, and now is the perfect time to get the wheels in motion ready to make next Christmas a far less painful experience....
Firstly - a budget. Set one. Working out what you need to be spending is the first and best way of a) reducing what you ACTUALLY spend, and b) reducing the mid January credit card induced heart failure. List everything you need to buy, all the people you have to get presents for, the food, everything, and put an approximate value against each item. Then add them all up. When you've stood up again and regained your breath, you're ready to start tackling the scary figures! Some things you can probably reduce by a bit of clever planning, while for those that we can't, we have set up a small transfer each month going across into a dedicated savings account - meaning that when we come to start buying presents etc, the money is there and waiting.
Presents. More and more now there is a shift towards it being acceptable to say "Do you know, I really can't afford that" - a lot of families buy for children only, and Martin Lewis proved on his "Money Show" a few weeks ago the absolute joy that is, for an under 5, a huge box filled with balloons. An Auntie or Uncle trying to do a present on a budget? Then the Pound shops are your friend for younger children - get a gift bag and fill with an assortment of odds and ends - look out for items like packs of toy cars that can be split down and wrapped individually. We visited family at the weekend and took a bag for each of the littlies filled with all manner of things we'd found through the year - Pound Shop purchases, big bags of marbles found for pennies at the charity shop, colouring pencils bought 2 packs for 99p when we saw them - back in about July! Everything was roughly wrapped in tissue paper or scraps of wrapping paper so the kids still had the "unwrapping" experience, and they were AGES unwrapping all the odds and ends, and loved every minute of it. Present of the day was undoubtedly the "Crawling Octopus" - you throw it at a window, or the wall, and being made of a rather unpleasant textured sticky substance, it proceeds to crawl down.....both children absolutely adored them, and they cost about £1 each! With friends, if you want to buy presents, and can afford it, then brilliant, go for it, but why not consider agreeing a budget to stick to? Or even do it on a "Secret Santa" basis - a group of friends and I have done just that this year and it's been great fun!
Food. The rest of the year we've been happily cooking from scratch, meal planning, and batch cooking, so why at Christmas does that all go out of the window for so many people in a hale of pre-made processed stuff? whilst some things are great to buy ready made (Life is definitely too short to stuff a mushroom) others are so much nicer home made. Anything pastry based is a great place to start - pastry is at its best when it's really fresh so making your own almost guarantees you'll end up with something tastier than the options lurking on the supermarket shelf. Mince pies are easy, and as for sausage rolls, well, food doesn't come much simpler! And if you have a food processor, making the pastry doesn't even need to be time-consuming. Dips too - bit of yogurt, some very finely chopped caramelised onion, and some grated cheddar - cheese & onion dip. Pot of Soured cream, some snipped chives....well, you can work that out!. A perfectly acceptable thousand island style dip can be made by mixing equal quantities of yogurt & mayo, stirring in tomato ketchup until the desired colour is reached, then adding a little cayenne - easy! Houmous is a doddle to make at home too, and very popular.
Plan ahead - buy now for next year. Not foodstuffs obviously, but the post-christmas sales are a great time to buy cards, tags and wrapping paper to put aside ready for next December. Gift bags are rarely reduced, but there are a number of budget card shops out there now selling bags in varying sizes 3, 4, 6 or 8 for £1 making them increasingly affordable. Particularly for elderly relatives they are often a lot easier to manage too, and of course they are a godsend for tricky-to-wrap items. Ours go round the family for years - they don't get thrown away until they are too tatty to use, it's not at all uncommon for someone, on being given a present, to exclaim they were the original purchaser of that particular bag! The sales are also a good time to buy reduced price presents ready for particular people's birthdays or christmas presents as well - just ensure you remember where you've stored them! If your Christmas food and drink bill causes a sting, then why not buy a couple of savings stamps from your supermarket of choice each time you visit through the year - by next year you would have £100 or so to put towards your festive fare, and most of the supermarkets will give you a small bonus when you redeem a full card too.
Above all, remember that this can be a stressful time of year, and worrying about the bills around it will only increase that stress. If you have barely any time for cooking, and need to buy everything pre-made, then so be it, there are other ways you can economise. Remember though that pastry can be made ahead and frozen, so it might be possible to do things in advance? If you are happy to spend lots on Christmas, then so long as you have the money and aren't going into the red to do it, then all good - that's your choice, and nobody should call you a fool for exercising that right. Setting budgets for things can still be a good idea though - you might be happy to spend, but being in control of the spending is always good. If you HAVE overspent, and are sitting in a panic dreading the arrival of the next brown envelope, then remember that the hardest thing is facing up to the problem, Martin Lewis of www.moneysavingexpert.com always says he has never seen a debt problem without a solution, so pop over there, visit the forums, and ask for help. Within a few minutes (yes, even on christmas day) you will have folk willing to help, offer advice, and point you in the right direction.