How to control the cost of Christmas

It's a season of debt as well as goodwill when people spend too much

Money worries might be keeping people awake at night, but many will still overspend during the run-up to Christmas.

Some will take out payday loans while others will let energy and council tax bills go unpaid to buy presents for their children.

But there are other ways of doing things, and these become easier when we understand our own behaviour. This time of year "is the most dangerous because you impulse-buy", says Maggie Kirkpatrick of the Consumer Credit Counselling Service.

Paul Crayston of National Debtline says: "Calls to us are always at their lowest in December (as people put aside debt worries) and their highest in January (as people face up to money worries post- Christmas)."

CAP (Christians Against Poverty) gives this advice: "Don't take out a Christmas loan and end up giving yourself a miserable start to 2013".

In exclusive research for The Independent, R3, the body for insolvency and recovery professionals, has found that nearly three out of five people (59 per cent) are worried about the level of what they owe.

Over a quarter (29 per cent) have absolutely no "buffer zone" in the form of savings – a big increase on the 20 per cent of people in January who had no savings. So why do some of us overspend now when we know that this could lead us into nightmare territory, such as court or eviction?

"Very often parents have a huge amount of social pressure on them," says psychologist Dr Michael Carroll, visiting professor at Bristol University. "Parents are emotionally hijacked by society, TV, children and comparisons into forgetting that they will spend the next year trying to pay off what they spend now."

It is particularly difficult for single parents who have no ally in the home and might already be feeling guilty or inadequate. "All you need is a demanding child who doesn't give up," he continues.

Eastbourne-based Maggie Kirkpatrick paints the picture of "Granny" whose family descends on her for Christmas, rightly assuming she will be delighted to see them but underestimating the financial implications for her.

"People don't think it through. They pop Granny £100 but they don't realise how little £100 goes when you are feeding six people. Granny is on a fixed income and it's only in January she might realise this has cost her £1,000."

Ms Kirkpatrick is seeing more people aged 60-plus getting into debt, many as a result of family pressures.

But there are ways to tackle the issue. Family agreements are recommended by Dr Carroll, National Debtline and Ms Kirkpatrick.

"They are exactly what you should do," says Mr Crayston.

"Start talking to people," says Dr Carroll. "Say 'Christmas is coming up. How are we going to celebrate? What are we going to spend?'"

As Ms Kirkpatrick says: "Christmas is a shared activity."

Overspending on a unilateral basis can put other people in a difficult position, choosing between the embarrassment of not reciprocating with expensive presents and getting into debt. A family agreement could, for instance, put a £30 limit on presents per person or have a £10 ceiling for adults and a higher one for children.

The debt advisers have many tips for keeping costs down, including making a list of presents to buy rather than impulse-buying; sending vouchers (and so avoiding postage costs); giving services (like babysitting for a couple one night and buying them cinema tickets for the new James Bond film); having a present-free agreement for adults; and making a budget.

Buying early may not always be the best route. Half of people, according to HSBC, will have bought their presents by the end of this month. But, once engaged in the pleasant process of buying for others, they may feel tempted to repeat the experience and so to overspend.

Budgeting is the tip which many of us will baulk at. Keeping a record of spending can sound deeply dull, miserly and complicated. But it is also the best way to get and keep control over one's finances.

"I have so much more peace of mind because of it," says Gavin (not his real name).

He can do it easily on the computer and he really enjoys the treats he gives himself now, rather than feeling guilty about them. The trick is to produce a realistic budget, not one which will be broken and abandoned early on.

The worst aspect of overspending at Christmas is that it can educate children to expect funding from their parents, at the cost of real love.

"There is a term in psychology about creating 'hungry children'," says Dr Carroll.

"The child says: 'Can I have...?' and you give them what they ask for. But, instead of satisfying them, you create a hunger in them. You can't feed them enough."

This quickly leads into the territory of comparison games between siblings, where they become envious of each other for receiving particular gifts and do not appreciate the loving thoughts underneath. Parents simply become cash cows in these circumstances.

So what is the best strategy to avoid being seen principally as a source of funds?

"Get it out in the open," says Dr Carroll. "Help people to think systematically and bigger. Help them to think about what they want in life and with their family, not just what they want from Christmas."

So while there may be tears and fights at first, people become more aware of the trade-offs that we all have to make in life – for instance, the idea that we might be able to afford a summer holiday if we hold back a bit now.

Christmas is the ideal time to help children start learning this lesson. In this way, instead of getting a computer game they will have forgotten about in a week they will start to acquire, in Dr Carroll's words, "a life skill" which will last them forever.

David is negotiating with his 14-year-old foster daughter, Nina, about how much she can expect to receive in Christmas presents this year.

Nina's natural mother had got into "horrific debt" and even gone bankrupt. Part of that slide involved giving Nina £300 or £400 of Christmas presents annually.

David says: "Her rationale was: 'I want Nina to have what I didn't have'."

But this year David and his wife have explained to Nina that they want to cap the spending at £50. "She said she wanted more presents than that," says David. "It's very difficult for her at that age, especially with clothes."

They asked Nina to do some research with her friends – "she came back and said some parents spend up to £300. I was quite shocked. And that included some parents without jobs."

Case studies: ‘We negotiate with 14-year-old Nina over her presents’

David and his wife have now managed to make Nina see that spending more on Christmas will mean they might have to cut back on the summer holiday. They have taught her that if she wants something new she has to contribute a certain percentage of the cost – which they negotiate with her each time – from her pocket money.

And the result of the Christmas negotiations? "We're sticking on £50."

Sarah, a single mother, married a widower and wanted to make sure her new stepson had a great Christmas in 2010.

So she spent £1,000 on credit cards.

"It was the first Christmas after the boy's mother died, so we decided to have a big Christmas," she says. "We thought we could pay it off over the next few months."

But in the event "it wasn't good because the kids opened the presents then went off to see grandma. I had spent a fortune and it wasn't worth it."

Worse still, Sarah's new husband became ill in the New Year and was off work, reducing their income further. Eventually the couple sought the help of their local Christians Against Poverty centre, who came to see the couple at their Sheffield home. The charity negotiated with creditors and set up a budget for the family to live to while the debt began to be paid off.

Christmas 2011 was very different. "I did a dummy run for Christmas dinner and discovered I could do it for £15 from Asda," Sarah says. "I had a Christmas box which I put in a cupboard and stocked up. I put things in and said 'Don't touch that, it's for Christmas'. We made our own Christmas cards and bought wrapping paper in the January sales for 20p! It was fabulous. We had a far better Christmas."

Names have been changed

NEED HELP? JUST CONTACT...

CAP (Christians Against Poverty) www.capdebthelp.org

Consumer Credit Counselling Service cccs.co.uk and 0800 138 1111

National Debtline nationaldebtline.co.uk/england_wales/factsheet.php?page=19_how_to_avoid_debt_at_christmas and 0808 808 4000

Independent Partners; request a free guide on NISAs from Hargreaves Lansdown

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