When I first started at university, I bought a book about how best to buy clothes on a limited budget. It was called More Dash than Cash and was published by Vogue. The idea behind it was that instead of shopping indiscriminately for what you wore, you bought a few carefully selected pieces which could be mixed and matched. I thought this was a really good idea at the time as it saved me wasting my student grant on many an impulse purchase. So now that I am in a similar position of working to a limited budget, we decided to employ a similar strategy for Christmas. Instead of going the whole hog, we looked at what things we felt really made Christmas enjoyable for us and concentrated on those. Where we felt cost was prohibitive, we looked at different ways of saving money and some things we decided to leave out altogether. As our respective credit cards are now strictly for emergencies only, we only spent what we could reasonably summon up in cash. With this in mind, I bought my sister's Christmas present when I saw it in the summer, knowing that it wouldn't be there later and - even if it had been - its price would have been inflated to reflect the silly prices people are prepared to pay in the pre-Christmas shop-fest! Granted that there were only the three of us here for Christmas and that we do not have a huge extended family to invite, or to send presents to, but if we did it would be all the more reason to put things aside throughout the year. And isn't it a sad fact that the high prices only prevail until after the big day itself, when the shops become desperate to rid themselves of their Christmas stock and slash prices accordingly? So now is the time to stock up on those cards and wrapping paper you coveted but were not foolish enough to pay full price for. Just make sure you put them somewhere memorable for next year! So with slim budgets in mind, I've put down some of the ideas that worked well for us this Christmas - tried and tested, if you like - and others that I feel work just as well at other times of year, for birthdays and other celebrations that potentially require a significant spend and/or advanced planning. As for Christmas, no routine is set in stone and it would be foolish to slavishly follow family traditions that demand excessive amounts of cash or stress. It really shouldn't be a test of anyone's abilities at martyrdom; if it doesn't work for you then I suggest you ditch it and try something else instead (with appropriate negotiations, of course)!
Shown above is our Christmas turkey, taken in close up so you can see the original price and what it was reduced to at 2.00p.m. on Christmas Eve. Now, as I've already said, there were only the three of us on Christmas day for dinner and I did have several joints of meat in the freezer, as Plan B, in case a bargain bird was not forthcoming but as you can see we hit the jackpot! It did help that we'd been into M&S once that day already to find out what time the reductions would be and also that we'd positioned ourselves next to the turkey shelf in the shop. We ate it over several days, had my mum to share some on the day she came back from spending Christmas with my sister and 'the boys' have been finishing up the last bits. I can see that this last minute gamble might not have paid off if you had been expecting half a dozen guests for a lunch and no turkey turned up so that's why it's always good to have something in reserve in the freezer. If we'd had guests we could equally well have had two joints of beef, a whole shoulder of lamb or a couple of large chickens, all bought on various reduction counters in the six weeks before Christmas.
Of course the idea of entertaining more than a couple of guests can be a scary prospect when your budget is tight. If I knew I had the whole family coming, I think I would take up India Knight's suggestion in The Thrift Book of getting everyone to bring or do something towards it. It takes a bit of prior planning thinking of everything you'll need beforehand but if you were doing it all yourself you'd have to do that anyway. If guests only have to concentrate on one aspect of the day - say the pudding - they're more likely to remember it and make a good job and it will be less weight on your own shoulders if you are doing the main course and the hosting. If you know others are also on a budget then match your request accordingly; a basket of home grown veg would go down very nicely anywhere, I would have thought. Alcohol never really comes down in price so either everyone could bring a bottle, you could pick up the odd bottle on special offer during the year as funds allow, or you could cultivate your wine making skills before next Christmas! If you are not the host, always ask if you can help by bringing food. The cost is minimal if you make it yourself. My own signature dish is a huge pavlova which will feed a dozen and looks a million dollars, plus it is impossible to buy anything like it in the shops. Six free-range egg whites, some caster sugar, a pint of cream and some fruit - either your own grown from the freezer or acquired on the reductions counter and you have a dessert for 12 for less than a fiver. If there are also going to be children you could even make some icecream with the leftover egg yolks! On the subject of baking, both Christmas cakes and Christmas puddings are fairly straight forward to make and are often a good way to use up odd ends of packets of dried fruit and nuts before they reach their 'use by' date. Also making your own allows you to substitute one type of dried fruit or nut for another - if you want to include more of your favourites - as long as you do this weight for weight. If you have a branch of Weigh and Save near to you you can buy the exact quantities of the ingredients you need. They also do cake icing and marzipan by the block and should be able to advise you on how much you need for the size of cake you are baking. There is no getting round the long cooking time for a Christmas cake (although it is cooked at a very low temperature) but Christmas puddings can either be steamed traditionally or cooked in the pressure cooker, which is much quicker. The microwave is probably quicker still but you would have to consult your operating instructions to find out. If you like a rich, dark cake then click here for the link to Delia Smith's online version. (I would ignore the cost at the bottom of the recipe, which is presumably for the cake mixture alone, unless you're planning to buy your ingredients from Waitrose!!)! If your preference is for a more golden version then you could try the Miniature Christmas Cakes recipe on page 48 of the book Country Living Country Christmas (try your library;edited by Francine Lawrence). There are larger quantities of ingredients for this recipe but bear in mind that these amounts will make six 4 inch tins or two eight inch ones - one to keep and one to give as a present!
That brings us nicely onto gifts and their potential to lay waste to your entire budget. We must all have had the experience of receiving something which - however well meaning and costly - we feel is wasted on us. I don't like any sort of wine but I have received lots of bottles over the years and passed them on to Si' (who loves them) but you get my drift. My starting point for choosing any sort of gift is to think about what the recipient really enjoys or what interests them, what I can afford to spend and work from there. My mother-in-law is a keen and proficient cook and my father-in-law a real foodie so their present box from last year - shown above - was made up of smoked Lincolnshire Poacher cheese and locally milled flour (from the farmer's market), vanilla pods and muffin cases (both bought on offer), a cookery book (from The Works sale) and a selection of homemade jams and chutnies. My niece, Lil', enjoys birdwatching and so her present this year consisted of a bird calendar and a diary in which to record her sightings, a big bag of good quality bird food to attract them and some pine cones - collected from a wood where we walk the dogs - to make bird feeders from to hang near her window. Very often I buy books as presents for children of all ages, particularly those titles that my own children asked to have read to them again and again. I don't think it's important whether these books are brand new copies or not, as long as they are in good condition. I am often pleasantly surprised at the excellent quality of both adult and children's books on offer at car boot sales. The same goes for sets of Lego, Playmobil and the lovely wooden train sets by Brio, all hugely expensive when bought new (I remember; we did it)! Having run a library and being fussy about the state of my books, I have no qualms about passing on novels I've read as gifts to others, perhaps with a special bookmark or a note as to why I think the recipient might enjoy a particular title. If you're looking for a gift that you can almost guarantee to be unique then secondhand and antique shops can be worth a browse. There are many items which would make quirky gifts for very little cash outlay and, of course, antiques are green! Some people can be a bit sniffy about 'pre-loved' gifts but if you mention the words 'vintage' and 'original' it suddenly makes them seem the epitomy of chic! Then there is the thorny question of what do you give if you really have no money to buy presents to speak of. My first thought here would be to make some but that is the subject of my next post. Instead I'm going to suggest giving a voucher for your time. You can make this yourself and it can be for anything from washing up or baby sitting to some skill you have which you could teach to someone else like basic guitar chords or baking bread. For the second year running I have given my mum a magazine subscription paid for entirely by my Tesco Clubcard points. My mum and Lu' don't have cards themselves but carry a keyfob version of mine and we always take a basket and reusable bags so we can maximise our green clubcard points, too.
Once you've got your presents bought, what about wrapping them? I don't think you can beat brown paper, which is strong, reusable and recyclable, though you will need to pick off any bits of sticky tape before it goes in the compost. You can leave it plain and jazz it up with coloured raffia or ribbon (again, reusable), potato print a pattern all over it, or use it as a base and wrap a slim piece of more costly paper just round the middle. If you want cellophane to go round a plant or some flowers then florists will often sell you some of the plain stuff off the roll. You can make this look really good by sandwiching a bright sheet of tissue paper (cheaper bought in bulk), between two pieces of cellophane then wrapping round your gift and tying with a raffia or ribbon bow. And if you can manage this then making your own crackers really is the next logical step; after all, shop bought ones are such a rip off. Perhaps they are called crackers to denote our state of mind when we buy them! You can use anything from newspaper to wallpaper for the outside, buy the snaps on the internet, save your toilet roll middles for a few weeks and personalise the little gift to go inside. Ditto, jokes. The paper hats in bought ones always rip or drop over the eyes so why not make your own party hat for Christmas dinner? My sister and her family do it every year and it's a wonderful excuse for gluing and sticking with children once they've broken up from school.
Notice that I have left the tree till last. As far as I'm concerned you can stuff the turkey (so to speak) and keep the presents; number one of my absolute Christmas must-haves is my tree. I know it sounds silly but if I can't see and smell my tree on Christmas Day then it's just like any other ordinary day with a lot of extra washing up! We normally have a really big tree - as our house has 9ft ceilings - but this year we thougt that if we had a smaller one we could put it in a table to give it extra height that way. However, when we went to get one on the 19th of December all the decent small trees had gone and we were left to choose from the 7ft plus ones that were too big for most houses. Thankfully, the tree was one of the last things we bought and having saved on other areas of our Christmas budget we decided we had to spend it here or do without. The local grower we buy from in a neighbouring village told us that people are buying their trees earlier and earlier and just keeping them outside until they are needed; so if we want a smaller one we should go earlier next Christmas. That said, we left our tree in water till Christmas Eve and in the week since it has barely shed a needle. I think I might just get a jar and put in a pound every week for next year's tree! Once this one comes down on Twelfth Night it's going up to the orchard to act as a bird feeding platform of sorts; you can't beat value for money!!!
I'm afraid this post has become rather lengthy but that's because I am so keen to show that Christmas really doesn't have to mean going into debt till the summer. I've actually only skimmed over what I feel most people include in the average Christmas but if you're still a little sceptical I hope my next post will soften your opinion...
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Now for a little competition . . .
This is actually my fiftieth post - and fifty posts is a lot of writing - so to celebrate I am offering a brand new paperback copy of India Knight's The Thrift Book as a prize. I'm afraid I can only run to posting within the UK but what I'm looking for are your most brilliant suggestions - left in the comments section of this post - on doing Christmas well for less. I'll feature the very best ones here so other readers can try them, too. You have two weeks from today - until January 16th - to get your entries in. So what are you waiting for.....?