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It's time to talk money to avoid over-spending on Christmas

by Sarah-Jayne Dunn, CAS policy manager (Financial Health).

This column was first published in the Herald on 17 November 2021.

Last year I wrote an article here warning about the traps of Christmas spending. You’re now reading this year’s version of that article. And while I could just repeat all that advice (write a list, don’t rush, set a budget and stick to it, and avoid all the supposed ‘bargain’ deals that turn out to be anything but) I thought this year I would take a slightly different tack.

To quote Louisa May Alcott in her book, Little Women: “Christmas won’t be Christmas without presents.” But is this really true?

If you think it’s a bit early to be talking about this, you’ve missed the fact that many people have been doing their Christmas shopping incredibly early this year. Maybe it’s the ease of internet buying, or possibly the pandemic has made people worry about items arriving late. But it’s certainly the case that doing your Christmas shopping in the autumn is the in thing.

Retailers say their shelves were only full of Christmas gear weeks ago because that’s what shoppers want. And research by eBay Ads has found that many people this year are expecting to have done all their shopping before December even begins.

Now, normally, I would fall into this camp myself, as I am generally a very organised person, known for being prepared. But for some reason, this year, I am not as organised as I usually am, so I expected to be shopping well into December. Yet every day at the moment I hear someone I know declaring, “That’s me all sorted for Christmas then,” and rather than spurring me on, I find this makes me panic. Why am I not prepared? Should I be?

This train of thought is not at helpful because it just opens me up to panic buying and falling into the very traps that I advised against last year.

So if, like me, you haven’t started thinking about Christmas yet, don’t worry - we have plenty of time. We’re not late, they’re early! So we don’t need to panic, we just need to take stock and then start, one step at a time.

Last week, I took that first step. I wrote a list of all the people I’d like to buy gifts for. However, before starting to think about what I could buy each of them, I wrote down a number. This is the total amount I’m going to spend on Christmas presents.

The reason for this is I want to make sure I only use my November wage to pay for Christmas gifts. Like most people, in December I am paid bit earlier than the end of the month, and whilst I’m paid slightly earlier than usual in January, there will still be a big gap between the two pay-days. This means any bills or costs I have in January will need to be paid from my December wages, so I want to make sure I have a good buffer for any unexpected costs or higher-than-expected bills. Obviously not everyone will be paid the same way as me, but if you can structure your payments like this it’s something you might want to consider.

The next thing I discovered, when I compared my ‘magic number’ to the people on my list, was that there was no way I could buy what I wanted for them all within that limit.

So, what to do? Well, I could ignore my set amount and over-spend, or buy them lesser items, or borrow money and get into debt. But I wouldn’t be much of a money adviser if I ignored my own advice.

So instead, as last week was Talk Money week, I decided to do just that. I talked to my family and friends about money. I explained that I wanted to get them all gifts, but I just couldn’t afford to.

I wasn’t met with upset or anger but rather relief and understanding. Some of my friends were in a similar position, so we agreed not to get each other gifts but instead we’d have a mini Christmas night, with festive movies and treats. My family and I have a Secret Santa arrangement so I only need to buy one thing, but we’ll all get a present. We’ve even set a maximum amount and provided wish-lists so we’ll get what we want rather than the random things you can sometimes end up with!

I have to say, this put my mind at ease. There are still some people I need to buy for, but it has made it much easier to do so within my limit.

And by having these honest conversations, I can now move onto the next step. Planning what to actually buy.

With Black Friday and Cyber Monday just a week away, I’m reminded of Martin Lewis’s sage advice – get benchmark prices. i.e. instead of just waiting to see what’s available in these sales and assuming it’ll be a bargain, I’ve used Google Shopping to price-check all the items on my list. This way I’ll be able to see if an item really is cheaper on Black Friday. If it is, fine. If it isn’t, I’ll just buy it at the cheaper price.

So here I am today, waiting patiently for Black Friday, armed ready with my list and my benchmark prices. I’m still mindful of the risk of naughty retailers tempting me with things that aren’t on my list but look like a good bargain. But if I stay strong and am lucky, maybe I’ll be able to bag a few genuine discounts.

And who knows, maybe I’ll even get it all done by the end of November after all. Wish me luck.