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The experts: money gurus’ 20 failsafe, frugal tips to keep Christmas overspend at bay

<span>Illustration: FABIO BUONOCORE at Synergy/The Guardian</span>
Illustration: FABIO BUONOCORE at Synergy/The Guardian

It may be too late to save for the festive season, but it is still possible to ignore the marketing hype and reduce spending, which will be better for the planet and your pocket. Frugal experts share their advice on how to save money this Christmas.

Limit your exposure to unreal expectations of Christmas

“There are ways that you can embrace all of the joy, warmth and connection of Christmas without creating a really difficult financial situation for yourself,” says Clare Seal, the author of Five Steps to Financial Wellbeing and creator of the Instagram account @myfrugalyear, who lives in Bath. One way that Seal does this is by avoiding social media accounts that offer too much temptation. “Christmas used to be about which family had the best lights on their house,” she says. “But now we can see inside people’s homes on social media and we have got a really distorted perception of how much stuff people are buying because influencers are quite often gifted lots of stuff.” The solution? “If you have a problem with spending when you are exposed to these things, the best thing that you can do is to remove all of that noise. Mute or unfollow accounts that trigger envy or comparison. Unsubscribe from marketing emails. The carrot for signing up is that you get a discount: create a separate email account that you only look at when you specifically decide that you want to.”

Don’t throw money at the problem

“Sometimes I buy things just so I can close the tab on my phone,” admits Seal. The increased mental load in December means “there are so many decisions to be made, so much Christmas admin to do” and it can be easy to throw money at the problem so that it is one less thing to worry about. “Quite often, I think we spend money so that we can file things under done,” she says.

Consider group presents

This is ingenious. “For each household,” says Seal, “we will put together a little box of gifts. For my husband’s father and stepmother, we have included our kids’ school photos, a Percy Pig decoration and a bottle of mead, so everyone individually has been thought of, but it is a lot more cost effective and less time consuming.”

Try a Secret Santa

Seal is a fan of doing Secret Santa for family members so you just buy and receive “one great present, rather than lots of token gifts”. Ken and Mary Okoroafor of financial blog The Humble Penny and authors of Financial Joy: Banish Debt, Grow Your Money and Unlock Financial Freedom in 10 Weeks are also on board with this: “It is helpful for making sure everybody gets something that was thought about intentionally,” says Ken.

Reject the notion that ‘it isn’t Christmas without …’

“We have an internal checklist of things that we think we have to do for it to be festive,” says Seal. “Go to a Christmas market or have a turkey – they are quite false or manufactured things. You don’t have to do all of those things for it to be a lovely Christmas.” Seal’s family will be having chicken this year “because it was a fraction of the price of a turkey of the same weight and no one will complain – our children probably like that better,” she says.

Budget for festive spending throughout the year

This is something Seal tries to do, where possible, “starting in February, because January is always tricky, and ending in November. Then the money is there to be spent.” If you haven’t saved this year, start asap in 2024. “Hold on to this feeling of discomfort that you have with the cost of Christmas and get it set up for next year,” she says. “If you don’t want to spend much at Christmas, you might get compared to Scrooge or the Grinch.” There is the perception that “Christmas should be when everything goes out of the window, but obviously you have to recover from that afterwards.”

Choose useful gifts

The Okoroafors live in Dartford, Kent and have two boys who are eight and nine. “We ensure that their gifts have plenty of variety,” says Mary. “We give them something to wear, something to read and something to play or create with.” They have not done stockings – as stocking fillers quickly add up – but might introduce them this year with items like deodorant, a toothbrush and skincare products. The adult Okoroafors tend not to buy gifts for each other, saving that for birthdays.

Have a potluck Christmas dinner

Ken and Mary are hosting this year and will have 25 guests. Instead of paying for the whole meal themselves, everyone will bring a dish, from turkey to jollof rice, sharing the workload and the cost. They suggest making a list and sticking to it when food shopping to avoid festive novelties that can slip into the trolley: “For people who get distracted by all the shiny items on the shelves we recommend online shopping,” says Mary.

Reuse and recycle

From wreaths to decorations – “they’ve been the same since before we got married,” says Ken – the Okoroafors recycle as much as possible. A few years ago they invested in a £100 reusable tree, which should last for years. If you do want to buy decorations, the best time is just after Christmas when they are on sale, says Mary.

Try DIY Christmas cards, wrapping and presents

Since the Okoroafors’s boys were toddlers, they have made their own Christmas cards. “They are more special and their grandparents keep them,” says Mary. Alternatively you could not bother sending them at all. “The postage is wild,” says Ellie Austin-Williams, a financial coach and writer who lives in Clapham. Her debut book Money Talks: A Lifestyle Guide to Financial Wellbeing is out in January. Her grandad has a subscription to a virtual cards service, which is a fraction of the price, “and he sends them to everybody for every occasion”. Likewise, wrapping paper is a waste; recycle or use newspaper or brown paper, she says. “Think creatively about how you can present gifts and don’t spend loads of money just to make them look perfect.” The Okoroafors like a burlap bag tied with a ribbon that can be reused endlessly. Seal makes edible gifts, such as chocolate orange fudge.

Remember, it is truly the thought that counts

It is easier said than done, says Austin-Williams, but “it’s not always about the value of what you are giving. It is about the time and the effort – the presents that are most valuable, or the things that people really remember, are not the things that cost the most money. And there are lots of things you can give that don’t cost money,” such as vouchers for babysitting or help in the garden, or arranging to go out with friends instead of buying them a present. What if someone gets you a more expensive gift than you can afford to give them? Honesty is the best policy, says Austin-Williams. “You can be really grateful for it, but also say ‘I hope you don’t mind, I’m not in a position to be able to spend loads of money’ and think about ways you can repay them with gratitude or time.”

If you are struggling with debt, get help

If you are entering the festive period with problematic debt, seek advice before you start spending more. “Reach out to a debt charity,” says Austin-Williams, “such as StepChange or National Debtline and get some professional support, because it can be really overwhelming and stressful if you are in that situation.”

Be honest about your financial constraints

“If you’re not at that point but you have got debt, try to be honest about the financial situation that you are in,” says Austin-Williams. “Speak to friends and family about the kind of constraints that you have, and the reality of what you are able to spend. I think we get a false idea in our head of the expectations that people have for our spending, whether it’s on food, socialising, or presents. If you open up and say, ‘I don’t have the space for that in my budget’, or ‘I’m struggling a bit this month, could we do something else?’, then you will see that people just want to spend time with you and don’t necessarily care about the actual activity. If you’re honest, I think a lot of the time people are happy to adjust plans and to work within your budget, but you’ve got to tell them that you’ve got that budget and those constraints.” Chances are most people are in the same boat. Seal says the cost of living crisis is a good icebreaker: “An awkward conversation is so much better than getting your credit card bill in February and having no idea how you’re going to pay it off.”

Avoid pointless purchases

Austin-Williams has a two-month-old baby, who she will not be buying any presents because he will barely be conscious of them – and there is plenty of time to buy kids presents at Christmas. “He will probably get a couple of things from grandparents.” But she will indulge in a personalised decoration for him, “because that will last for ever.”

Don’t overcommit

“It is so easy to say yes to everything,” says Austin-Williams. “I’ve done it and then you end up with a packed schedule, exhausted and with no money.” Because she has a newborn, she will be doing most Christmas socialising at home this year. “We are having people over for mince pies and drinks and just catching up that way. I think everybody is feeling the stretch a little bit.”

Make your own traditions

Alexandra Stedman, who is editor of the Frugality, will be having mac and cheese on Christmas Day in north London with her young children (three and five) who wouldn’t appreciate a big sit-down meal anyway. Rather than sticking to tradition, just think about what you actually enjoy, she says. For her family that is “watching a film and having some canapés from Aldi.” There is a need to re-evaluate some family traditions to make sure Christmas is affordable – and Ken Okoroafor advises some frank conversations: “Ask ‘what are our traditions? Are there things we can change this year?’ And everyone can agree and move on.” Hopefully!

Be organised

“I swear by lists,” says Stedman. “When you are hiding presents it can be tempting to go and get a little bit more,” but a list can help prevent this. Stedman strictly buys one present per person and doesn’t buy for relatives if she is getting gifts for their kids. She recommends asking people what they want – there is no shame in getting them something that they will actually appreciate and use.

Shop in real life

This saves on shipping costs, says Stedman, and you can check if the present is any good, which isn’t always obvious when internet shopping, plus “buying online is soul destroying,” she says.

Try to get on board with re-gifting

“If it is something that you know someone else will love,” says Stedman, “then that is absolutely fine. I would be fine with knowing that something was re-gifted to me because we have all got to think like that and be a bit more circular. We have to re-train our brains and how we think about gifting.”

Don’t forget the true meaning of Christmas

No, it isn’t all about matching pyjamas. “It’s such a cliche to think about the thought and the love, but it’s important to keep that at the front of your mind,” says Stedman.