Consumer Rights: Christmas trap can leave you heavily in debt

With a bit of planning, you can enjoy the big day instead of worrying how you'll pay for it

I know – I say the same every year. If you can't afford to buy something without paying with credit, don't buy it, or you'll still be paying for long after it's broken or worn out.

How many people do you know who say in the New Year: "I really enjoyed all that shopping and spending"? Not many, I suspect. Most of us lament the fact that we've run up credit cards bills that we don't know how to clear and all we have to show for it is a load of old tat.

According to the Money Advice Service, one million of us will use a payday loan to cover the cost of Christmas while a third of adults will use credit cards.

Make your New Year resolutions early. Tell everyone you normally spend money on that you're reducing your shopping list to small things for the children only, or donating to the starving and homeless at the heart of the latest natural disaster. Believe me, you'll feel much better for it and so will everyone else – apart, perhaps, from the charity shops that won't have so many goods donated in January.

I can hear you saying: "My family would never agree to that. They love presents, even if they are tat." Ask them. You could be amazed. All mine were relieved they no longer had to spend money they couldn't afford, and time they didn't have buying me things I wouldn't want or appreciate. However, if they don't go for that plan suggest each present costs under a set amount, or that everyone buys just one, or that you all make them. If you still have to go into full shopping mode, there is still time. Use saved-up loyalty points and vouchers. Don't leave it all until the last minute or you'll panic and throw money at it.

Make a budget for the total of your Christmas spending and a list of who is getting what before you venture near a shop or website. Don't be tempted by more expensive presents for some because that means others will have to have less expensive ones or you'll go over budget. And allow for the food bill being higher than you think because you'll add things to the basket that aren't on the list. Be firm with yourself.

There is not much time to save up now. Last year we spent on average £1,000 per household on Christmas. I know people who are still paying off last Christmas's credit card debts. Once they add in the interest, they will have paid about £150 extra. If they had used a payday loan, they could have paid a lot more as the rates are high and payday loans are meant to be repaid a lot quicker.

You could ask your bank, building society or credit union for a loan or ask for an arranged overdraft at your bank. If you just go overdrawn, the fees and charges will be a lot higher. Always ask how much you will pay back in total over the period for which you borrow and be sure you can make those agreed payments.

If you do pay by credit card, you will have up to 56 days before interest starts being added. If you pay the bill in full before the due date, you won't pay any extra. If you use a reward card, don't buy more than you need just to get the rewards.

You can't delay buying the food but when it comes to presents why not wait until the sales? You'll get a better deal, and most of us like presents after the fuss has died down.

We're expected to spend about £10bn online this year. Keep your money safe. Only buy from reputable sites – look for the padlock sign. And make sure the computer you're using has up-to-date anti-virus software, or your personaldetails could be hacked. If you're paying more than £100 for an item, using your credit card gives you extra protection. If something goes wrong and the retailer won't sort it out or has gone bust, the card provider is liable.

If you are lucky enough to be going abroad for a pre-Christmas spending spree, check how much you can bring back before you have to pay customs duty or import VAT.

You'll have a much better day if you aren't stressed because you've broken the bank. And your New Year resolution could be to save up for a real big splash next year. If you do get into money trouble, go online and search for free debt advice. You don't have to spend money on that.


Q: My wallet and driving licence were stolen on holiday. When I got back I went to what I thought was the DVLA website to report the theft and order a new licence. I was surprised there was a £100 fee but paid it to get things sorted out quickly. But when I got an envelope postmarked Tyne and Wear with enclosed DVLA forms and my details typed on them I realised something was wrong. I went back to the search engine and scrolled to where I found: 'Motorists warned when applying for a driving licence online'. I realised I had used a website that looked official but wasn't the DVLA site, and I had paid for a service I didn't need. Can I get my money back? CB

These sites aren't illegal and offer a service some may find useful. But for the most part they are just cashing in on the fact people are in a hurry and don't take the time to read the details.

Motorists aren't the only ones to fall foul of these services. Many sites are set up so they look like the official one. Whatever the service you're looking for, check you are in the official site and not one that simply looks official.

Let your local authority Trading Standards office know what is happened. Some are looking into particular cases like yours and may appreciate hearing about your experience.

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