Counting the Cost of Christmas


Social media is always entertaining at this time of year.

It’s wall to wall elaborate bakes and crafts and spooky-faced elves and “toddler style” – all set against a perfectly-lit, stylishly decorated home.

Of course.

Because everyone knows Christmas can’t be magical unless your presents are purchased from boutiques, wrapped in artisan, hand-printed paper and unwrapped by cherubic toddlers wearing the latest outfit from Joules or Boden.

And it all has to be captured on your £1,000 camera and broadcast simultaneously on Pinterest and Instagram.

Don’t get me wrong. If gourmet cooking, crafting, and putting together cute festive fashion floats your boat, then I salute you. We all need a hobby. Mine’s watching box-sets and eating mince pies (made by my good friend, Mr Kipling).

I just wonder if we’re not all in danger of being sucked into the idea that a magical Christmas requires us to invest a lot of time – and money.

I’ve written before about my financial history. It’s not pretty.

Long story short: I got divorced and found myself £70,000 in debt. I had a huge mortgage, and I was £5,000 in arrears. For a couple of years there, I’m not sure there was a single bill that came into the house that wasn’t paid late.

Being in that sort of debt is ridiculously hard. You don’t want to answer the phone because you know it’s going to be someone else asking you for money you don’t have. You go for days without opening the post, because you know it’s mostly going to be letters from the bank telling you that because you didn’t have enough money to pay Bill A, they’re going to charge you £35, and that now means you can’t pay Bill B, either. And that’s a good day. There were a lot of days that were worse than that.

It took me years of ridiculously hard work to pay off those debts. And these days I have a strict policy – if I don’t have the money, I don’t buy it. When I needed a new car, I saved up, and I bought it. I don’t use credit cards, I don’t have an overdraft, and if that means I waited a ridiculously long time for a new kitchen, well, so be it. There’s a lot to be said for the warm and fuzzy feeling of being able to look at something, and know it’s bought and paid for.

My policy applies especially at Christmas, that time of year when being self-employed stops being a way to earn a living and looks more like a long-term savings scheme.

As my fellow self-employed types will know, pretty much everyone who works in accounts payable in the UK goes on holiday somewhere around December 15th and doesn’t come back until the second week of January. If you’re owed money, and you don’t have it by December 15th, you’re out of luck.

So if I had one piece of advice this Christmas, it’s this: don’t get sucked into thinking the magic is something you buy. It really isn’t.

The magic of Christmas is in spending time together as a family.

It’s watching stupid movies and playing board games and not needing to just nip off to check your email for work.

It’s holding hands in church on Christmas Eve, and walking home together, scouring the sky for Santa’s sleigh.

It’s a long walk on Boxing Day, somewhere ridiculously cold and windswept.

Those are the real, simple, meaningful experiences that kids remember long after the artisan wrapping paper has been sent off for recycling. Don’t you think?

If you’re struggling with finances this Christmas, then there are lots of places that can help and ensure you have a happy new year:

  • The Money Advice Service has loads of great information on managing debt and resolving any issues you might have
  • Stepchange is a free charity service that will help if you’re struggling with credit card and other finance payments
  • I used Martin Lewis’ advice on bank charges to reclaim over £3,000 – do give this a try if you’re in financial hardship


12 thoughts on “Counting the Cost of Christmas”

  1. Totally agree with you. I’m recently redundant and scrimping to ‘do Christmas’ this year but I do love being around to watch all the concerts and do all the hand holding that we can possibly do. The kids never remember the presents, but they do remember us all being together and playing games. The time we give them is by far the most important bit. Thanks for the reminder!

    1. Thanks Hatty – I hope Christmas is filled with good stuff for you – I’ve been made redundant twice, and it’s tough. But you’re right – it’s not presents they remember at all, is it?

  2. This is lovely. 2015 is going to be my year of “the clean financial slate”. Social media – especially Instagram and Pinterest has been slowly dragging me into this vortex of want, want, want and I’m really not comfortable with that. Nothing feels nicer than a hug (or a cwtch in this part of the world) and I’m confident enough in my own skin that I don’t need to be benchmarked according to the material things I have. But I do have a fair few of those and I’m far too much of a magpie for shiny, pretty things and I too want that feeling of knowing I’ve paid for it all outright rather than doing a bit of sick in my mouth when my credit card statement comes in at the end of the month. But c’mon, Mr Kipling mince pies when you live in very close proximity to a Booths?!? This has got to stop. Treat yourself, it’s Christmas. Thanks for further confirming my financial intentions for 2015. You can buy me a coffee…

    1. I think a clean slate is a fine plan – and hurrah for not being sucked into the social media vortex – the interiors on Pinterest can be a temptation in themselves!

  3. I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s so hard not to get sucked in to the ‘John Lewis’ type of Christmas vibe and, while I’ve been good this year, having kept money aside for Christmas, it hasn’t always been that way. We had massive debts too when my husband lost his business and we had to sell our property. We are now saving to try and get back on the property ladder and it’s tough… especially when I want to spoil my son rotten! But Christamas is all about family and bonding and being together, and that’s what I love most about it. Oh, and the films I’ve seen a zillion times, but who cares!

  4. I think that this has to be one of my favourite posts of yours ever. I still have debt remaining from my ex relationship – and you have spurred me on to carry on trying to clear it. Christmas is certainly going to be all about family even more this year.

  5. Great post and really well said. Hubby and I had a lot of debt before we had kids and cleared it as quickly as we could. We now save for anything and to make Xmas affordable we start buying presents in january to spread the cost and make the most of sales BUT to me, having Christmas dinner with my family, watching pants Xmas TV and having a G&T whilst playing a board game are all so much more important that the things under the tree x

    1. I’m hugely sympathetic to people with debt – compound interest and late payment penalties make it so so hard to get out of debt – but Christmas can just add to the strain, can’t it?

  6. As a child & a teenager we were evicted from two homes dues to my mum and step dads poor money management, the second time I was left homeless with my sister to look after so times were tough and I know how to budget. I save through the year to help with Christmas and the girls birthdays which are in November & Janaury. I only buy what I can afford and would never put myself in debt for Christmas. the girls don’t ask for much BG wants a flower pot & sunflower seed and Little Miss doesn’t really understand. I make a few bits for family and shop around for good offers. Yesterday we did the bulk of our Christmas good shop and thanks to out nectar vouchers it cost us £1.58! We don’t go overboard on presents for them as they get so much through the year and from family. We want then to appreciate what they have.

    1. Blimey, Carol, that’s really tough and it’s not surprising it’s shaped your views and attitudes to money and debt – it sounds like you’re modelling really good behaviours for Little Miss an dBG, though. Hope you have a fab Christmas and 2015.

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