Managing anxieties about money in the build-up to Christmas

Posted 4 December 2017

Single mum Aisling shares her tips on having Christmas celebrations that don’t break the bank.

Christmas is fast approaching and it is impossible to avoid the jingly adverts and packed shelves in shops. Although many families feel the strain at this time of year, those headed by a lone parent often feel more pressure, not just economically but emotionally.

From the perspective of my experiences as a lone parent on income support, I want to share my reassurance that Christmas really can come together, regardless of the make-up of your family, or how much money you have in your bank account. I hope it offers some comfort to those who are struggling to feel festive.

Many of us have childhood memories of Christmas-time that we wish to replicate for our own children. Little traditions or certain foods that conjure up the magical festive build-up. This desire is perfectly natural – and admirable. What is worth remembering though is the fact that your childhood Christmases were exactly that – your childhood perception of the festivities. Your parent/s were possibly able to afford consumables and enjoy a lower cost of living as they went about preparing for Christmas. Or conversely, they too may have been struggling. If you’re reading this, you may well be feeling bogged down with a sense of inadequacy or guilt about your lack of money or other resources to create the Christmas you want.

I recall feeling so panicked about Christmas one particular year; I didn’t have any disposable income and aside from a few stocking fillers, I couldn’t see how I could make Christmas happen for my daughter. I felt physically sick when walking round shops, hearing Christmas songs and seeing other people pile their trolleys high with food and gifts. This was exacerbated when I filled my basket only with our usual groceries (which in themselves were a stretch). The only ‘extras’ I could afford were mince pies and sausage rolls; my attempt at creating a sense of difference to our food. The sense of guilt at that time in my life was pretty overwhelming and I felt like a failure, living hand-to-mouth and hating myself for it.

But of course, Christmas did happen that year, not least because of presents gifted to my daughter from a few adults we were close to, and the opportunity to share meals with them. As my daughter was growing up, I experienced several Christmases similar to that, desperately wanting to create a magical time but lacking the resources to do so. Estrangement from my family soon meant that I was preparing Christmas totally on my own and had to learn to be more resourceful and a better planner.

When one has little or no disposable income, Christmas costs can seem insurmountable. There appears to be so much to buy in the run-up; from fairy lights and Christmas cards, to presents for teachers and entertainment for children. These costs, on top of everyday household expenditure, can be impossible to meet. Or, they are met – but only because the water rates/gas bill/tv licence hasn’t been paid. I spent much of my twenties in debt to my water company because I tended to avoid paying them for a couple of months each winter to free up that cash for Christmas. I did so through desperation and I would certainly not recommend it as a course of action to anyone reading this.

Every household has different budgets and so I am not going to risk offending anyone by suggesting gifts for their loved ones. I am not going to offer advice on emotional issues that may be casting a cloud over your preparations. I am instead going to share a few tips that I hope will be useful to others as they manage their anxiety during the (unnecessarily) protracted build-up to festivities.

I want to share my reassurance that Christmas really can come together, regardless of the make-up of your family, or how much money you have in your bank account.

Children don’t remember ‘stuff’

When they are older, children will no more remember with disappointment the presents they received during a ‘lean’ Christmas then they will remember with joy the more expensive gifts they received during a more extravagant Christmas.

Your children will remember the anticipation of Christmas, the build-up at school, the laying out of food for Father Christmas, the getting cosy with a film and a hot chocolate. They remember the Boxing Day brunch, consisting of weird and wonderful combinations of food that would normally not feature on their plates. They will not note the fact that you haven’t got a tin of branded chocolates but will enjoy dunking biscuits or baking a cake if that’s what you can manage.

All that glitters is not gold!

Just because we are bombarded with what the advertisers’ version of Christmas is, we don’t have to comply with them. Adverts depict beautifully made-up women and handsome men, serving a sumptuous lunch in a stylishly co-ordinated dining room. The reality of Christmas with children for the masses usually involves mess, noise, gravy spillages, ‘make do’ chairs and ripped paper underfoot while trying to make a cup of tea and remembering where you hid the crackers. This is the reality for most families and this authenticity is to be cherished.

Involve the children

Even small children can help make some decorations in the few days running up to Christmas Day; saving you a bit of money as well as keeping them occupied. They can cut out snowflakes from plain white paper or scraps of wrapping paper you have lying around, decorating them with pens or glitter or both. They could prepare some reindeer food by mixing cheap porridge oats with a handful of glitter to sprinkle outside on Christmas Eve. A plain paper plate could be customised ready for Father Christmas’s mince pie/biscuit/cake.

Children love helping, they love the praise that comes with a job well done. They can help you tidy and sort things around the house. They will certainly enjoy decorating the Christmas tree or displaying the family’s Christmas cards.

If they were feeling really creative (and if you don’t mind the mess), they could decorate plain biscuits with icing or chocolate spread as a tasty reward for their efforts in helping you. Activities such as these, spread over a few days, can help make the holiday period feel a bit different as well as fending off boredom.

Don’t carry the burden alone

Don’t be afraid to confide in close friends and/or relatives about your anxieties about affording presents or food. Maybe agree on a ‘no present’ rule for this year and instead, all contribute to a shared meal where everyone spends an agreed amount on their offered dish. Or a ‘no present’ rule for the adults you know but a small stocking-filler present for children you usually buy for. I doubt anyone would be offended by this – if anything, they would probably be inwardly thanking you for being the one to take the plunge and say ‘enough already’!

If you have teenage or adult children, don’t be afraid to manage their expectations about Christmas. While you won’t want to worry them, it will alleviate pressure on you if you encourage them to be realistic about what you can afford to buy. We can scrimp and save to afford the ‘perfect’ Christmas but sometimes an honest conversation can create the same outcome.

Better late than never…

Like me, you may have read accounts of families who have postponed their Christmas Day to a later date in the month. Fed up of overpriced food and toys, families are increasingly looking at ways to cut the cost of Christmas while ensuring there is still a celebration. This is a real option if you want to save on the cost of your food and gifts; I think most adults have grimaced at seeing the half price aisles on the 27th December or even Boxing Day.

Avoid debt if you possibly can

Christmas Day lasts for 24 hours, just the same as any other day. If debt can be avoided this is preferable to having your purse-strings tightened for the next six months (or longer). Fast credit is available at our fingertips but often comes with extortionate charges which force many households out of the frying pan and into the fire, impacting on their ability to meet the priority expenditures of rent/mortgage and council tax which can have serious consequences.

The period after Christmas is a popular time for people seeking help with their debt issues, keen to start the New Year on a positive footing. If you have debts and feel they are spiraling out of control or are having a detrimental impact on your mental health, do consider seeking free, independent debt counselling from reputable sources such as Citizens Advice or the Money Advice Service. Their websites offer self-help budgeting resources (including help with Christmas budgeting), as well offering more tailored help where necessary. They can also tell you about your local Credit Union which can offer an affordable way to save money in the future if you’re on a low income.

Details of your local Foodbank are available online, via your local Citizens Advice Bureau or your local Council if you are struggling to buy essential groceries (including toiletries and sanitary products).

Above all, try to remember that the health and well-being of you and your children are far more important that the latest gadget or toy. Try to enjoy your Christmas as much as you can and take comfort from doing your best with what you have; as they grow older your children will remember the time you spent with them, not the money you spent on them.