January is a bad month for social services charity Barnardos. In the weeks following the annual Christmas spending binge, holiday hangovers start to kick in.
It can be a highly stressful situation, says service manager Rachel Turner.
“Kids are hungry, there’s no money. It’s pretty miserable.”
Families are under pressure to provide a picture-perfect Christmas like they see on TV, with all the fancy gifts, glitzy decorations and delicious food.
But Turner says you don’t need to spend a lot of money to have a good Christmas. Look back on your own memories.
“Usually you can’t remember what you were given, but you can remember how you felt,” she says.
“That what we’ve been saying to families; try and create an atmosphere that is loving and peaceful, rather than buying in to marketers and advertisers.”
Here are some tips for a stress-free holiday that embraces the true spirit of Christmas, with none of the greed, one-upmanship or outdated traditions.
Create family traditions
Barnardos social workers did some research where kids were asked what they wanted for Christmas.
The sprogs were surprisingly realistic about their limited chances of getting a pony or a PlayStation 4. Instead, they often just wanted mum and dad to stop fighting and to spend time together as a family.
“It might sound a bit Pollyanna, but that is actually what kids want,” Turner says.
Barnardos suggests a low-cost family tradition could be something as simple as going to church, or spending the day at the beach. If you are a sucker for punishment, you could even make it a tradition to watch Love Actually or some other suitably soppy holiday movie each year.
Make a list
If you are part of a big whanau or blended family it can be hard to keep track of all the rellies you are buying gifts for.
The best strategy is to use a good old-fashioned list, which you can cross off as you go.
Simple Savings author and money columnist Jackie Gower recommends setting an overall budget, and sticking to it.
You can then divvy up the money between each person. Gower says it also helps to give yourself enough time so that you can pick up bargains earlier in the year, rather than having to buy everything at once.
Northland dairy farmer Lyn Webster, author of the popular book Pig Tits and Parsley Sauce, is firmly of the mind that Christmas is not defined by how much money gets spent.
“If you’ve got no money and it’s making you feel bad that Christmas is coming, that’s not what it’s supposed to be about,” she says.
Webster has been through her own tough financial times, and says her kids have generally been understanding.
“Honestly, they do not care. They’ve got a brain, and they can see,” she says.
In fact, Webster thinks it is time to re-think the whole gift-giving tradition, which usually results in a pile of unwanted ornaments, ill-fitting clothes or useless trinkets.
“Think about Nana, who’s been brainwashed into Christmas for 90 years, and she’s got no money,” she says.
“She buys you some pathetic thing, and everyone makes fun of it behind her back. There’s no joy there.”
If you do feel compelled to give, Webster reckons cash, grocery vouchers or a donation to a charity as a better alternative.
The other option which is becoming increasingly popular is a secret Santa.
“What we’ve done with adults, is just draw a name out of a hat, and buy one present for one person,” says Webster.
That way you can pool your $100 and get something decent, rather than buying a whole load of token gifts.
“A lot of that stuff is just entertaining crap, and it will just end up in the tip in a short period of time,” she says.
Turner suggests avoiding shopping malls if at all possible. As she points out, there are no clocks to mark the time passing as your wallet rapidly becomes lighter.
Wheeling through the throngs of people and festive displays, with Snoopy’s Christmas blasting in your ears, you will inevitably end up with a trolley laden with unintended purchases.
If you do have to do a mall run, take advantage of extended opening hours and try and go in the morning or late at night. Go alone, without nagging children or competitive friends to sabotage your budget.
Keep your list close to hand, and if possible, research online beforehand so you can find the best prices and get in and out as fast as possible.
Another good strategy for sticking to the budget is to withdraw some cash and then leave your cards at home. That way you can’t succumb to weakness and rack up debt that will come back to haunt you in January.
Bring a plate
The women who slave away in the kitchen all day to produce a traditional Christmas feast are “martyrs”, says Webster.
She says the best solution so no-one gets landed with all the work and expense is a pot-luck, or assigning dishes to different people.
“A lot of us take it upon ourselves that we have to do it all ourselves, and we have to do it better than Aunty Mildred last year,” she says.
“[But] a lot of people expect to be asked to bring a plate, and they really don’t mind.”
As far as classic foods like Christmas puds and turkey go, both women think you should dispense with tradition and serve whatever suits your tastes and budget.
“People aren’t going to be scarred for life if you get a chicken instead,” says Gower.
Gorging yourself to the point of explosion and then picking drunken fights with annoying relatives is another tradition worth dispensing with.
“I’ve seen Christmas ruined,” says Webster. “Really it should be all in moderation.”
After the big day, Gower prefers to chill out at home rather than join the throngs stocking up for next year in the Boxing Day sales.
“Only buy what you need,” she recommends. “Kids change their minds every five minutes.”
The other way to prepare for the year ahead is to regularly save throughout the year.
“A lot of people buy supermarket vouchers when they do their regular shop,” Gower says.
“By the time Christmas comes around, you’ve got several hundred dollars saved up.”
Others opt to put money towards hampers, but Gower cautions they are usually over-priced.
Instead you are better off making your own Christmas stash by buying non-perishable items when they are on special throughout the year.
Gower had a bit of an epiphany recently.
“We think we have no choice but to spend, that you have to buy the right gifts, you have to spend enough,” she says.
But it is all nonsense. You do have control, she says. The decision of what is “enough” is entirely yours, not your neighbour’s, your mother’s, or your gossipy co-worker’s.
Like Turner, Gower says her favourite Christmas memories have nothing to do with the prezzies, or how big the ham was.
“It’s about the people. It’s about the atmosphere. It’s about creating all those Christmas-y warm fuzzies.”