Wednesday, 16 December 2009

so much for a frugal christmas

Time to confess: this Christmas isn't working out as (thriftily) planned.
Like many families, our festive spending had got a bit over the top: I threw money at it (panic-induced present shopping, getting stuff delivered) because I ran out of time.
So I assumed we could probably cut back quite painlessly this year. You can't move now for people touting a frugal, homemade, recessionary Christmas (led by Kirstie Allsopp and her icing polar bears) How hard could it be?
Well, after a fortnight roadtesting various tips, it turns out homemade can sometimes be a surprisingly false economy. It's a lovely way to spend a rainy afternoon with small children, but it can end up costing more money than buying the lot from a shop.
(Relatives who'd rather not know what they're getting for Christmas: look away...)
I thought about homemade christmas cards, but worked out I'd spend more on glitter and card than the usual big box from Oxfam - and the Oxfam ones include a donation to people rather needier than me. No contest.
Homemade presents, then? Ms Allsopp's chutney was out (I made loads in summer, but suspect none of my relatives will be terribly excited to get it for christmas).
So I made Lindsey Bareham's recipe for bottled preserved lemons instead. It's a joy to make - you warm the lemons in the oven to make them juicy, so the whole house smells of citrus, and it made me feel terribly virtuous - but using unwaxed fruit (I don't like using waxed ones if you're eating the peel) meant about £5 on lemons alone. If I hadn't already had seasalt and a glass jar, the whole thing could have cost nearly a tenner. Big jars of preserved lemons are about £4 in shops. Hmm.
It all reminds of the Great Potato Fiasco, when I grew potatoes on our London patio. After buying seed potatoes, special growbags, compost and the rest I could have shipped in Jersey Royals by private jet for less than my supposedly thrifty homegrown veg.
But in some cases the maths did add up. In no particular order:
1. Homemade decorations. Lots got broken last year by exuberant dog/toddler, but instead of buying more I did pine cones (scavenged from woods, stuffed in airing cupboard until they open up, rolled hamfistedly in glue and glitter by child) and dried orange slices (slice two oranges thinly, spread on baking sheet in oven on lowest heat until hard and crispy, arrange artistically on tree so light shines through them). Free child entertainment and orange-scented kitchen thrown in.
2. Cooking from scratch. We usually do this anyway but Christmas cake, pudding, chocolate truffles, bread sauce, brandy butter, etc are all satisfyingly cheaper homemade than bought.
3. Writing out cards in time to send them second class. Next year, will save on stamps by starting earlier and distributing by hand when I see people. In, like, July.
4. Using more imagination, and taking more time, buying presents. Remembering small children are so overwhelmed by big piles of stuff that they don't actually play with it.
5. Homemade wreath. Wreath ring about 60p from garden centre and the rest was free: moss to use as a base dug out of manky back lawn; fir and ivy from garden; berries, rosehips, holly, crab apples etc collected while walking dog. Wired together with garden twine: final cost about £19.40 less than last year's florist effort.

Not bothering with a wreath would, of course, obviously have saved another 60p. And I reckon I could've skipped the cards without offending anyone.
And that's the big lesson: it's too easy to get suckered into thinking you need lots of Christmas stuff that is utterly unnecessary. All those magazine articles hyping gourmet turkeys and iphones for the under-fives have an insidious effect, yet these are not the things that make the day memorable.
We're not quite down to a turkey sandwich, plus a hoop and a stick, in this house. But it has set me thinking. If you pared Christmas back to the absolute essentials, what would those be?


  1. My Christmas essentials, in no particular order:
    Some kind of tree (dried bamboo artistically arranged can and has sufficed in past)
    A string of lights
    Family and loved ones
    A pastelle and a glass of ponche de creme
    Unlimited smiles and merriment

    To be guaranteed these every year (as opposed to, say, night shifts) would be such a luxury.

  2. Christmas essentials are:
    tree (small, reusable) with ornaments,
    christmas lights outside the house
    visit to family (or family visiting us)
    homemade cookies and pies
    gifts based on discretionary income
    christmas music
    lots of chocolate
    gratitude and joy for a blessed life

  3. - christmas carols every night before (the kids go to) bed in front of the tree
    - some sort of homemade craft (we made wreaths with pine cones this year)
    - stockings, mince pies, and lots of time with friends and family.

  4. I love the sound of the sliced oranges on the tree. Will definitely give that a go. I also have been doing the glitter pinecone thing and finding that although cheap, it makes one heck of a mess. As with all these homemade things though, it is only cheap if you already have a huge store cupboard full of the ingredients/accessories and of course if you don't count the cost of your own time. The absolute essentials for Christmas for me would be my family and then the things like carols and the smell of the tree. Plus the reflection of the fairy lights against one particular blue bauble which was my gran's and which takes me back to being a child. Coming over all sentimental now... The main non essential is definitely christmas cards. Even second class stamps are 30p. eeek.

  5. I'm not having a go at you, but please don't collect berries and greenery whilst walking the dog. My parents own a piece of land with a public footpath running along one edge. For as many years as I can remember, at this time of year people have hacked and cut and torn at the bushes to get greenery and berries for Christmas decorations with the result that my parents' shrubbery is damaged and threadbare. The trees and bushes that you cut and pull from are not yours - it is theft, as simple as that, and quite possibly criminal damage. You might think that the six sprigs you took made no difference - now imagine a dozen people doing that each day for the three weeks running up to Christmas - get the picture? Anyway, to answer your question, I'd be quite happy to simply have good food and good company (which may not mean the extended family, thankyouverymuch), switch off and put my feet up for a while (which may not mean being at home). However, what actually happens is we get caught up in this sense of obligation as various friends and family members expect to see us (and particularly The Child) such that we don't often get to do what we want for ourselves, even though we haven't necessarily figured out what that might be.

  6. I love inviting people (anyone: friends, family, their friends and family, neighbours) round for food and drink and visiting their houses for food and drink. A decorated tree (annoyingly needed new lights again this year), christmas music whether live or recorded, receiving cards with messages on them rather than just hastily scrawled signatures. I'm tempted by all sorts of peripheral decorative items of course and sometimes succumb. But something inside me realises that a warm welcome is the main thing we're all looking for at Christmas. And it's a short leap from making a garland for the staircase to feeling terribly smug, which just doesn't feel right for Christmas (or at any other time).

  7. I'm used to doing fairly frugal Christmases, and I keep costs down by buying presents throughout the year and putting them away - it spreads the cost and also means you can buy something at leisure rather than rushing round the shops in december in a panic.

    I also use an artificial tree. I'd prefer a real one but the cost of them went sky-high a few years ago and it was an unnecessary cost. We use the same decorations, with a couple of new additions each year to ring the changes.

    I don't go mad on food shopping either, I try to plan meals ahead with a few extras thrown in. I don't buy a lot of alcohol.

    For the children's present I keep to a strict budget (approx. £100 each) especially as they both have birthdays in November so it's an expensive time of year.

    I hope this doesn't sound too sad, we always have a lovely Christmas - made better by the fact I'm not in debt at the end of it.

    Have a great Christmas.

  8. My 2 teenagers were sad that I hadn't bought the strips of coloured paper to make paper chains, but they cut up those flyers that come with the papers and made fabulous, colourful paper chains - brilliant! (and cheap)

  9. LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this post... found you by way of the Country Mouse... I could be writing for the next hour, but for everyone's sake, will keep it short and sweet. Love your idea with hand delivering the Christmas cards in July. Yes, meals are MUCH cheaper being made at home, it's the best. Yes, some Christmas gifts could be expensive to make--skip those and stick with the inexpensive ones. Will check out your blog a bit more.

  10. I'd have to go along with the general idea that Christmas is much more about the people you spend it with than the stuff you get, although it's worth putting a bit of thought into activities other than dinner for the day itself. Otherwise, everyone sort of waits around for dinner, has dinner, then wonders what to do next. Even something as simple as a walk (preferably to a pub) can solve this.

    Having said that, this year will be my daughter's first Christmas, so I fully expect that her every gurgle will keep the whole family entertained all day. Which will hopefully allow me to spend more time with the various bottles of whisky I'm no doubt due to receive (I'm Scottish, and I've learned that if you're Scottish and marry into a non-Scottish family, you can expect to get a lot of bottles of whisky. Just as well I like whisky).

  11. Husband says I should publicly confess that fierce wind today has left homemade wreath looking a little bit more, ahem, freestyle than it started. (Emergency surgery with garden twine tomorrow, then). Gwynneth, have been saved from smuggery....
    And graybo, I promise no garden hedges were harmed in the making of it! All greenery from common land - we are lucky here in having lots of it.
    Richard - ahh, there is nothing like first Christmas with a baby, even if all they do is eat the wrapping paper. Enjoy: for next year it will be much, much noisier....

  12. Thanks for responding Gaby, but whether it is common land or not, please don't pull it off of bushes you pass. I live near Ashdown Forest - the Forest was once extensively wooden with holly bushes. See if you can find them now. Please, please, please only use farmed holly/greenery. It may cost you a bit, but it saves wrecking the countryside. It also assists the rural economy.

  13. Of course, I meant it was wooded, not wooden! Also, should say that, complaints about rural vandalism :) aside, I really enjoy your blog. Keep it up.

  14. A tree is usually the most important element for Christmas in my book. But as my husband and I generally go to our families' homes for Christmas -- all of whom live outside of the UK, we don't ever get one.

    This year having faced the possibility of not going to my husband's parents home with his sisters and nieces and nephews in Italy for Christmas, thanks to BA strike threat, I was in a real panic about what we would. But I soon realized that to have a low key Christmas just the two of us even without a tree would be lovely: Carols, small turkey, roasted veg, home baked pie, nice bottle of red wine and our feet up... I think it's what we're going to do next year...

  15. I'm quite frugal, made the food from scratch. I tend to spend more on sourcing really good ingredients...cheese, smoked salmon and fish than buying expensive ready made stuff...

  16. Lovely page of subject. I just stumbled upon your weblog and in extension money to insist that I get really enjoyed record your article. Anyway I'll be registering for your feeds as well as I achievement you get access to repeatedly speedily.Buy Fake Grass