Spendthrift Janie and I are having a mince pie, or three. Well, they are small. And I have made them myself. "So, no hydrogenated fat whatsoever," I point out. "And they'll have only cost about 3p each." Indeed. I even found a jar of Lidl mincemeat from last Christmas with which to fill them. I'm hoping they will cheer Janie up. Since her parents bailed her out this summer, her finances have taken a somewhat regressive position. And now there's Christmas to hurdle.
"Did you see that piece in the Mail?" she moans. "Three women, all in debt, saying they will never pay off what they owe. Never. Oh, God. Do you think that could ever be us, Rosie?" Mm. I tend to use a marathon mentality when considering just how much I owe to the Clydesdale, Mastercard, Goldfish, and a variety of obscure mortgage lenders. In the same way that marathon runners just take it one mile at a time, I never think of the whole sum at once. I just try to pick various corners off.
For example, I paid off a credit card last night. And then cut it up. Six days before the 0 per cent interest deal on it expired. Ha! I have another mince pie.
"Well, I've saved £12 on my TalkTalk bill," says Janie. What, for a day? "No, for a year. I registered on the net and now get my bills online. Which saves £1 a month." She shrugs. "I know I have a mortgage of £450,000, interest only, but you know. Look after the pennies..."
I do know what she means. There's something wildly fulfilling about clawing back even the most meagre of sums into the gaping maw of your overdraft. Do it once every 10 days. You'll be glad you did. This week, for example, I managed to rescue £25 from the bank, who wrongly charged me for, well, being overdrawn; £44 from Eurostar for selling me something that didn't exist; and £45 from the hairdressers, via the simple ploy of arriving so late for my appointment that I had to forgo the cut and just have my hair coloured instead. Well, my mother always said that no one needs to have their hair cut every eight weeks, and that the concept was just a ruse of the hairdressing industry to make more cash.
So, a grand total of £114 saved, which is really quite a lot. "I'm just treading water," I say to Janie. "But at least I'm not sinking. And in the Christmas run-up, even treading water is quite impressive."
She nods. "I'm trying to arrange Christmas shopping via a policy of giving away freebies," she says. "I've been collecting things that PR companies have sent over, or simply freebies I can pick up in shops, for the last two months. I've got a good stash of them." I bet she has. Janie, a sometime beauty writer, still has good links with the cosmetic industry, which is wont to send her Jiffy bags full of exfoliation cream and fake tan every now and then.
"I got a huge stash from Lancôme the other day," she says. "I was very excited, but when I opened it, it was full of skincare for the over-fifties. Still, great for my mother-in-law."
Giving freebies is a great Christmas thrift tip, and can apply to anything from office calendars to corporate snow domes. Take the stuff home, wrap it up, it'll make someone very happy on Christmas Day. But it can be a risky business, particularly if the recipient is over 10. If the gift looks too much like a freebie, by which I mean it has a great big sticker on it saying NOT FOR SALE, you will be rumbled. "I know," says Janie. "My husband's boss was married to someone who worked for the Burton Group. Every year, the whole team would get these striped shirts from Burton."
Thrift Queen Laura turns up. "Sorry there aren't any pies left," we mumble. Never mind. She waves a small orange book triumphantly. "This," she says, "is going to be my key to Christmas." Oh yeah? "We've just been talking about freebies," says Janie. "No, no," says Laura. "Dressing up freebies as presents is immoral. This is what you need." We look at the book: Bargain Hunters' London, by Andrew Kershman.
Maybe this could be the answer to my thrifty Christmas. Janie surveys the book, doubtfully. "Look at this," she cries, "a charity shop that sells Chanel suits for £900!"
Then again, the freebie idea still seems quite attractive.