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.
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