In another world, I would sit down at the beginning of December with a notepad and pen and make a really organised Christmas shopping list.
What I actually do is commence the proceedings by searching every drawer in the house for forgotten gift vouchers. I usually start with the children’s rooms. My son and daughter, despite being brought up to count every penny, hardly ever use these things.
My daughter’s school probably thinks it is setting her off on a lifetime of worthy pursuits with a £5 voucher for WH Smith awarded for good work over the year.
She, however, shoves the thing in with her socks and promptly forgets about it. To her, a £5 voucher is not even the price of a Jacqueline Wilson. To me, it’s half-way to a decent present for that nice-but-hard-to-buy-for old friend. Add a fiver to that and we’ll have a lovely book on embroidery to parcel up and send off with a jaunty card (bought in the New Year sales at half-price from the charity shop, obviously).
I am a Santa Scrooge and I have no shame. For years now, I have been finding ways to save money at Christmas. Although it’s been driven by financial necessity, it is shored up by a twisted moral logic. I cannot for the life of me see why people take pleasure in haemorrhaging their own money on stuff that other people either won’t like, won’t wear or won’t eat.
On that point, when I’m on the gift voucher hunt I also keep an eye out for unworn items of clothing bought in error or in the hope of dropping a dress size. It’s rare to get your money back from a shop without a receipt, but a credit note goes a long way when you’re out hunting.
I work on the general principle that money is money, whatever form it might come in. To this end, I also look around the house and garden for things I might sell to bring in extra festive funds.
I might be a Santa Scrooge, but that doesn’t mean I am infallible all year-round. I have been known to buy things just because they are in a sale, and live to flagellate myself over the pointless purchase for months. I am also a hoarder, so only have to open a cupboard to find a pile of baby clothes kept in case of a miracle birth, or a set of table mats received for a wedding present 24 years ago.
This is a very pro-active approach and also clears the space for the new shoal of tat that will descend on Christmas Day itself. Where I live there are several active Facebook groups which allow people to sell things locally without the fees or fuss of eBay.
And let me tell you, these ‘selling’ forums are the biggest indicator of Christmas consumerism you can find. The bright lights of Regent Street drawing shoppers into the West End to melt their plastic? That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Here you will find people who flog off all their Christmas decorations every year, just because they get bored with the colour.
No wonder the average family spends around £800 on making Christmas happen. This figure comes from the Money Advice Trust’s National Debtline, an excellent organisation, and one of the few resources to offer proper practical advice to people struggling to manage their finances.
However, I’d say that this average doesn’t take into account those blessed with large complicated families living miles apart from each other. I can’t do anything about the prohibitive cost of petrol required to service all family members with a visit. My only advice is to pray for really heavy snow.
However, there is one answer to the fiscal punishment that is multiple gift-giving and that is ‘Secret Santa’. It might take a few cooking sherries to pluck up the courage to make the suggestion, but I think you will find that everyone will thank you.
Get your adult family members to agree to buy only one gift, rather than spend their hard-earned cash on tracking down something suitable for every aunt, uncle, cousin and step-relation. Set a spending limit agreeable to all. Pick a name out of a hat. Grimace (it’s never your favourite relative). Get over it. And then enjoy the process of sourcing just one special lovely present, instead of shelling out on 14 unsuitable gift vouchers in a panic on Christmas Eve. Because you know now what happens to those gift vouchers, don’t you?
Jayne Dowle is a freelance writer