Christmas is always an expensive time but it is even harder this year because of the huge strain on household finances caused by soaring food and energy bills, with research pointing to half of Britons reining in their spending on presents and celebrations.
The average person has a budget of just under £400 for Christmas, according to the annual spending forecast prepared by the accounting company PwC, which estimates the cost of living crisis will result in consumers spending £1.8bn less overall than in 2021.
At £393 a head, this is £33, or 8%, less than last year, with shoppers of all ages set to spend less, according to the firm. However, the biggest change is among 45- to 54-year-olds, who have slashed their budget by 10%, it said.
Christmas dinner, and food and drink more generally, are the key spending priorities at this time of year, analysts say, but record food price inflation suggests there will be less lavish feasts on many dinner tables than in previous years. The cost of a traditional “turkey with all the trimmings” meal has soared by 11%, according to one estimate.
Spending less doesn’t have to be the end of the world, however. With a thrifty mindset you can make your money go further without sacrificing any joy. We show you how.
While some keen Christmas-lovers may have hung up the decorations already, most households wait until December before putting up the tree, meaning this is the weekend many families will be heading to the garden centre, and hunting for baubles and fairy lights in the loft.
Research issued this week by Admiral Home Insurance found that, across the UK, those in Belfast are likely to pay the least for a 7ft (2.13 metre) Nordmann fir: an average of £53; in London it is £80.
The good news is that there are deals to be had. The consumer body Which? says Aldi is the home of the cheapest Christmas trees in 2022, with a 5ft-6ft (1.6-1.8 metre) Nordmann costing £14.99, and a larger 6ft-7ft (1.9-2.1 metre) version at £24.99. Meanwhile, Ikea is doing real Christmas trees for £25 but will give you a £10 voucher that can be redeemed in-store (between 9 January and 12 February 2023), effectively reducing the cost to £15 for some.
Each year Britons buy as many as 8m real Christmas trees, and the British Christmas Tree Growers Association recommends you use a local retailer, as this is likely the cheapest and most sustainable option. Its website has a useful directory to help you find a company where you live. When it comes to disposing of it, either burn the tree or use it for wood chipping rather than letting it decompose.
“If people have a budget in mind, you will be able to find a British-grown tree within it,” says Rory Young, the BCTGA chair. “We have trees starting at £20-£25. The best way of getting a cost-effective tree is buying local and British-produced – that way, you are cutting out all the transport costs of imported trees. If people hunt around, there are trees out there to suit most budgets.”
The most popular choice is the Nordmann fir, which is much admired for its thick, bushy branches and soft needles that are slower to drop, but a traditional Norway spruce tends to be a cheaper option. Some growers also sell different grades of tree, so that might be another way to bring down the cost.
If you are thinking about getting an artificial tree, it is worth making a considered choice. According to the Carbon Trust, a 6ft 6in (2 metre) artificial tree is responsible for about 90lb (40kg) of greenhouse gas emissions – which means you need to reuse it for about 10 Christmases to keep its environmental impact lower than buying a real tree every year, depending on the materials used in the fake tree.
About two-thirds of an artificial tree’s carbon footprint is the plastic it is made from. If you are keen to buy one, you could also look out for one that won’t go out of fashion, and avoid a pre-lit one as there is more chance of the lights breaking. Also consider buying a preowned one.
House & Garden magazine chose a £63 6ft (1.82 metre) pre-lit tree from Marks & Spencer as one of its top picks this year, while Glamour magazine’s best budget tree was a £37.50 option from Habitat. The store is also stocking a half-Christmas tree for £41.25. Meanwhile, Ideal Home recommended a 6ft (1.82 metre) blue snowy spruce fake tree from Dunelm for £99.
The White Company’s trees top many lifestyle magazines’ lists but most have a price tag of several hundred pounds. However, the retailer sells a pre-lit 18in (45cm) option for £35, which ranks in GQ’s top trees for 2022, and is great for small spaces and smaller budgets.
If you aren’t set on having a traditional look, you could opt for a fake tree made from a different material. You could also scour eBay or Facebook Marketplace for secondhand artificial trees.
Not On The High Street has a £98 wooden option, made from oak, and Cox & Cox is selling a metal silhouette to hang decorations from for £62.50.
The Carbon Trust said potted options are also a sustainable option if you are after a real tree. You can decorate a potted living tree and then either plant in the garden or keep in its pot after Christmas until the following year. A potted Norway spruce measuring up to 2ft 6in (76cm) is £22 at Homebase.
This is an area where it is possible to economise and still get great results, with handmade decorations and charity shop finds cheaper and more environmentally friendly.
“Think paper chains and homemade snowflakes, or head out into local woodland to forage for pine cones, which can easily be made into decorations with some glitter and twine,” says Fiona Hawkes, a freelance writer who blogs about frugal living at Savvy in Somerset.
Jane Berry, who runs the Shoestring Cottage money-saving blog, suggests heading to charity shops and getting creative yourself. “You will find a good selection of secondhand decorations in charity shops,” she says. “They bring them out about now and they tend to be very cheap.”
Berry also suggests looking out for festive greenery in your local area. “You can find holly, ivy and even mistletoe if you are lucky.
“Let your children make paper chains. These are inexpensive to buy, and as a bonus keep them entertained for a while. When mine were little, they also enjoyed making snowmen from old toilet roll tubes and cotton wool, so let them loose with a few Christmas craft supplies.”
Sky-high energy bills have meant a renewed focus on home usage but making your home look festive with fairy lights won’t add much to your bills. You should avoid decorations that use older lights with halogen and incandescent bulbs because they use a lot more energy but outdoor lights are often made using cheap-to-run LED lights.
A household with a string of 200 LED lights using 6W power could expect to increase their bills by 27p if used for six hours a day for 22 days over the whole festive period, based on current electricity prices, according to Uswitch calculations. Battery-powered lights are another good option, especially if you already have a stash of batteries at home. You can always turn off other lights in the room and enjoy the glow.
When it comes to Christmas crackers, the cheapest options might not be worth bothering with at all, if all you get is plastic tat and a flimsy paper crown. Those plastic gifts, which inevitably end up in the bin, are bad for the environment, as is any nonrecyclable packaging. However, luxury options – which aren’t necessarily more green – might not be an option this year.
You can buy reusable crackers, which are an upfront expense; however, they will pay for themselves over several years of use. Check Etsy for handmade, refillable options. We spotted six for £12. Remember you will have to buy (or make) your own hats and gifts to fill them with.
Why not eliminate the cost of wrapping paper, too? Other options include tissue paper, old maps and newspaper – readers have told us that Guardian photo spreads make great gift wrap. You can also reuse the brown packing paper that comes with Amazon parcels or, if you are a Primark shopper, its festive paper bags. For the finishing touches, use string, ribbon or wool you have lying around the house. You can make gift tags out of plain card and either use a stencil for a professional look or let your kids use their artistic skills.
With food price inflation at its highest level since 1977, this is one area where careful budgeting is required to keep costs down and avoid unnecessary waste, so before you do anything, Helen Carey, a chef tutor at the Waitrose Cookery School, suggests taking some time to plan.
“Take into consideration how many people you are cooking for and how many meals you will be expected to prepare,” she says. “And factor in that some of those meals will be perfect made from the leftovers of your main Christmas meal.”
At Christmas time, many of us get carried away, with cheese, biscuits, chocolate, alcohol and vegetables the foods people often buy too much of. If you are broke but still hosting this year, why not discuss sharing the shopping costs or ask guests to contribute something to the meal.
About four in 10 UK adults will dip into their savings to pay for Christmas this year, according to a poll by F&C Investment Trust and Columbia Threadneedle, which found more than a quarter of people would celebrate Christmas and “worry about the cost later”.
It sounds obvious but a shopping list is an excellent budgeting tool that stops you being blinded by supermarket deals
If money is an issue, Ross Duncton at Columbia Threadneedle Investments suggests speaking to friends and family members so as to “manage expectations with gift-giving to take some pressure off the purse strings this year”. No one will want you to get into financial difficulty to fund the festive period, he says.
It sounds obvious but a shopping list is an excellent budgeting tool that stops you being blinded by supermarket deals. Also, before you go, try to work out the quantities you need to buy. There are online tools such as the food portion calculator on the Love Food Hate Waste website, which tells you how much you will need for each food type, in grams as well as other ways of measuring, such as slices or handfuls.
Then decide which supermarket or supermarkets to visit. Supermarket sales figures show hard-up shoppers heading to the discounters Aldi and Lidl and replacing brands with products from supermarket own-label ranges. You may choose to stick with your favourite supermarket brand but think about reducing the cost of your Christmas food shop by cashing in Tesco Clubcard or Nectar loyalty points in Sainsbury’s.
It is also worth thinking about “quality over quantity”. If you are not feeding a huge crowd, there’s no need to buy a huge bird or big pack sizes. You could opt for a cheaper turkey crown or trade up to a small free-range organic turkey if that’s all you need.
Where you choose to shop is not always about price, and stores such as Waitrose pride themselves on their ethical and taste credentials, which are harder to compare. However, this year more than most, it may be the overriding factor.
A Christmas turkey dinner cost 11.4% more than last year, according to a shopping basket put together by Interactive Investor, the investment platform. Its shopping list mixes luxury items such as an organic turkey crown with products from supermarket luxury and basic ranges, a “mix and match” approach it thinks is common in many households. The bill for the 16 items to make a meal for a family of four came to £89.11, up £9.14 on last year.
Alice Guy, a personal finance expert at Interactive Investor, suggests people should “resist the temptation to trade up” if they are trying to keep a lid on costs.
“Supermarkets often promote the fancy stuff at Christmas because they know we’re more likely than normal to choose the extra special mince pies or the finest wine,” she says. “But upgrading our food choices compounds the effects of inflation. Instead of buying the basic brie for £1.90, we buy the premium option for £3.25, and all those little changes mount up.
“Resisting the temptation to trade up to more expensive items can be a great way to save money at Christmas. I can guarantee that they won’t really know the difference between standard cheddar and the premium stuff once it’s out of the packet, especially when they’re already full to bursting from their Christmas lunch. If you do have a family of cheese connoisseurs, then you might decide to splash out on the cheese but buy a cheaper wine.”
In its study, Which? compared the price of 10 popular Christmas dinner foods across the five major supermarkets: Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrisons and Waitrose. The basket, which included a turkey crown, potatoes, sprouts and a Christmas pudding, came out cheapest in Asda at £30.72. At Waitrose the bill was more than £12 more at £43.
Its researchers could not buy all 10 items in Aldi and Lidl but, on a pared-down basket of seven items, Aldi was the cheapest at £22.30 (on this measure the Asda basket was £23.72). There are some apps such as Trolley that you can use to compare the price of higher-value items such as alcohol. Handily, Which? has also identified a selection of cheaper food swaps that scored highly in its annual festive taste tests.
Natalie Hitchins, the Which? head of home products and services, says that with so many households under huge financial strain, “no one wants to overpay for festive treats”, adding: “Our taste testers found some great options which won’t break the bank.”
For example, Aldi’s mince pies, which were half the price at 29p, came a close second to Waitrose’s No 1 Brown Butter Mince Pies in Which’s annual mince pie taste test, with both products earning its coveted “best buy” badge of approval.
The consumer group also suggests that you can reduce your fizz bill by swapping pricey champagne for sparkling wine. Aldi’s £9 Specially Selected Crémant du Jura, for example, came joint first in its sparkling wine taste test, while judges also praised the Co-op’s Irresistible prosecco, which is the same price. However, crémant is a closer match to champagne if you want a similar-tasting drink for less, it says.
If you are a Baileys fan (and who isn’t?), the Which? researchers also tried the cheaper supermarket versions of Irish cream liqueur so that you don’t have to. While Baileys came top with a score of 76%, Aldi’s Specially Selected Irish Cream Liqueur scored 74% and, at £7.99 a bottle, is is about £1 cheaper than the best supermarket deal we could find on the real McCoy.
At just under £8, Aldi’s Chateau les Trois Manoirs Médoc 2019 is also a red wine best buy, while in the Christmas pudding category, Asda’s Extra Special Christmas pudding, at £8, is also a “best buy”, described as a “brilliant budget pudding”.
• Prices correct at the time of writing.