This is what Christmas in a cost-of-living crisis looks like

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Every year on 24 December, Keira gets in the car with her son and drives over to her mum’s house in Nottingham for a traditional Irish boiled ham. On Christmas Day, they have turkey with all the trimmings, then head to Keira’s brother’s house for a second round of celebrations that includes games of charades and Monopoly, a big spread of all their favourite snacks (onion bhajis, pizza and mozzarella sticks) and crashing in front of a Christmas film. It is the best part of every year, one the whole family spends weeks saving and excitedly preparing for.

This year, things will look a little different. The 32-year-old will still go to her mother’s house, but they won’t be visiting her brother and his family at all. Keira can’t afford to buy the presents she usually does and can’t bear the thought of turning up empty-handed. “I'd feel they were expecting gifts,” Keira tells Cosmopolitan. The thought of anyone “looking down their noses” at her is too much to bear. She’d rather scale back and have a small and quiet festive season than face judgement for her financial constraints.

Keira, who had to leave her job in retail to raise her son on her own, now lives on benefits including Universal Credit and the Household Support Fund [introduced in September 2021 to help vulnerable people with rising costs of living]. She’s been offered a job as a youth worker, but at just over minimum wage and considering the benefits she’d lose and the additional childcare she would need, it might not make financial sense to take it. Currently, Keira’s benefits are just enough “to exist and pay the bills”. With everything from potatoes to petrol soaring in price, there’s no money to spare, and festive parties are out of the question. In debt to her energy provider and sometimes relying on foodbanks to feed herself, Keira hasn’t had a single night out with friends in 2022.

She also can’t afford to get her mum a Christmas present, which makes her feel “like crap”. She’s only buying gifts for her son, purchased via a buy-now-pay-later scheme. “Right now, I’m worrying about spending any money on Christmas,” Keira says. “Then I’m thinking, how much worse is this situation going to get?”

After two years in which Christmas was cancelled or dampened by Covid-19, this festive season might have been the ultimate blowout: a chance for people to let their hair down and revel in togetherness. But instead, December feels thick with tension. Annual energy bills for a typical household are now around £2,500 (up from around £1,000 in 2021), food price inflation has reached record heights, and rents and mortgage payments have rocketed. The UK is also suffering from chronic wage stagnation: unbelievably, average wages are no higher today than before the 2008 financial crisis, representing a loss of £9,200 per year.

christmas cost of living
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As a result, people in the UK are reckoning with a dramatic drop in how much money they have to spend on life’s essentials, let alone luxuries like trips to Winter Wonderland or boxes of Quality Street. While people in the most deprived areas are being hardest hit by the crisis, belt-tightening is widespread: 60% of people surveyed by YouGov were planning to spend less on Christmas this year due to the current economic climate. Yet the pressure to spend often feels unavoidable at Christmas, especially for parents.

“I’m hearing from women who are having sleepless nights, worrying about how they’re going to afford Christmas,” says Maggie Gordon-Walker, founder and director of Mothers Uncovered, a support group in East Sussex. “It feels cruel to [tell your child] ‘you can’t have that, we barely have enough to eat’. It’s Dickensian.”

It’s not just mothers who are cutting back on Christmas expenses due to the cost-of-living crisis. Shanice*, 25, is in her first term of a masters’ degree at the University of Edinburgh. She works part-time in a café alongside her studies and has found her first term “unbelievably financially stressful… I’ve only put the heating on twice since I moved in in September, even though it’s so cold up here.”

Shanice usually has dinner and cocktails with her schoolfriends in London before Christmas, but this year, she’s bailed. “You’re never just paying for the meal – everyone gets their hair done, nails done, new outfit,” she says, estimating the night’s overall cost as “well over £150”. Like the mothers in Maggie’s support group, Shanice has been “having sleepless nights” over money, worrying about “bills and what next year will bring financially.” As a Christian, she’s trying to hold onto her belief that Christmas is “about celebrating the birth of Christ and being generous to those less fortunate than yourself”, but it’s hard. For now, she’s told her friends she can’t attend this year’s dinner because she has to study. “I don’t want to say I can’t afford it.”

Dr Audrey Tang, a psychologist and chartered member of the British Psychological Society (BPS), says money remains a “taboo subject”, even among friends and family – which can make conversations about the cost-of-living crisis feel daunting. One 2020 study by the Money and Pensions Service found 55% of people in the UK didn’t feel comfortable opening up about financial worries, with shame and embarrassment among the most common reasons for avoiding the subject.

People often assume they’ll be judged for money problems, says Tang, and that others will think: “You must have managed things badly.” But good friends and trustworthy relatives will understand if you can’t afford something at Christmas – and Tang says she’d question a relationship if someone judged her on her budget. “Normalise those conversations about money,” she advises.

Jess, 34, from Brighton, has had some “tricky” conversations about money in the run-up to Christmas 2022. Her in-laws always cover the cost of everything when they host Christmas, but this year, the whole family is coming to stay with Jess and her partner. “We can’t afford to [pay for everything],” says Jess, who works in education. “We’re not even buying a tree.”

Jess and her partner’s mortgage is currently under £2,000, but is projected to rise to up to £2,800 in early 2023. They’re frantically saving to afford the new rate, which “makes things very tight” – so they’re asking all their Christmas guests to bring food, snacks or drinks. Jess has also been thinking of other ways everyone can save money, from buying second hand gifts to focusing on free activities like walks. She says her relatives are “more than happy” to contribute, but the conversations have been “a bit awkward”, and her partner wishes he could pay for everything. “It's a pride thing, which it shouldn't be among family, but often is.”

What would make life easier during a cost-of-living Christmas? Many experts are calling on the government to implement drastic changes, and fast. New research from the Young Women’s Trust shows 88% of young women want an increase in the national living wage and guaranteed, genuinely affordable childcare. Similarly, the Women’s Budget Group is calling on the government to urgently review funding for childcare, increase public sector pay in line with inflation and implement “fairer taxes that recognise the accumulation of wealth by the richest in our country while the poorest have got poorer”.

Ultimately, everyone deserves moments of rest, celebration and joy, and there’s nothing trivial about not being able to ‘do Christmas’ the way you’d like. Dr Nilu Ahmed, a psychologist at the University of Bristol, observes that the period between Christmas and New Year offers “socially accepted time off”, which is even more important when everyday life feels exhausting.

“The rituals associated with Christmas can help us feel more grounded and connect us with happier times,” says Ahmed, who also works as a psychotherapist in private practice. But there’s no correlation between a happy Christmas and how much cash is splashed on the festivities, she adds. “All my work with my clients confirms what the research tells us – Christmas is about the sense of belonging, love, and connection, not about the amount of money spent.”

christmas cost of living
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If this Christmas will look different from previous years due to restricted budgets, financial educator and founder of Instagram resource This Girl Talks Money, Ellie Austin-Williams, suggests treating it “as an opportunity to make new traditions”. If you can’t afford to travel to be with loved ones, do “little things to be kind to yourself” and others – from watching Christmas films to making hot chocolates or volunteering. “Maybe down the line you'll want to repeat [these new traditions] over and over again.”

But those at the sharpest end of the cost-of-living crisis need compassion from the government, as well as from themselves and others. Rachelle Earwaker, senior economist at anti-poverty charity Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), says “winter is looking particularly frightening this year” for people on low incomes. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced additional support for the poorest households in England and Wales in his November statement, but this support won’t kick in until April. Many campaigners say this isn’t enough, given that more emergency food parcels are being given out by the Trussell Trust than ever before and more than two million households are already in debt on their electricity bills.

Those cost-of-living payments that Jeremy Hunt announced [in November], that come into effect in April? Bring them forward to right now,” says Earwaker. “We've got this huge gap in support in the lead-up to Christmas and the first few months of 2023. The situation is going to be dire.”

*Name has been changed

Turn2us helps people in financial need gain access to welfare benefits, charitable grants and other financial help.

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