As I've pointed out there are two aspects to Christmas preparations: the shopping and the cooking. Let's take a closer look at them.
1. Shop smarter, not harder
My husband wanted to buy his sister some silicone bakeware but it turns out that the simple, straightforward stuff she wants (muffin and cupcake trays) aren't easy to find in the shops. I saved Richard some hassle by looking it up online. The Denby shop at Salford Quays does the ones he wants. If you're struggling to find an item you want, use the internet to see if it's in the shops in your area.
Internet shopping services
I've been using Irish-based hamper service Baskets Galore to send hampers to my family in Ireland since last year. Their service was so good I used them again this year. Some of the major shopping centres also do hampers.
Amazon has wish lists so you can buy people things they actually want. It's got a great range of goodies and they're generally reliable for sending items out. If you can shop and send stuff online, do it. The amount of hassle it saves with wrapping, posting and packing is worth the money spent.
2. Keep your costs down
One of the biggest stressors at Christmas is the cost of buying everything that goes with it. Have you ever seen Christmas with the Kranks? They spend $6k on Christmas, including presents, food, charitable donations... it's ridiculous how much we can end up spending so I propose:
- set a realistic budget and stick to it
- buy group presents instead of getting one for each individual
- shop online for faraway family and friends
- avoid waste
- keep an eye on your spending at all times
Set a realistic budget
Of all the steps listed above the hardest has got to be setting a budget. If you're not in the habit of keeping receipts or checking out your bank statements you're not going to be particularly self-aware where spending is concerned. If you're not aware of your spending you may end up setting your budget too high — or too low. On the contrary you might decide you're spending £200 on Christmas and that's final. Okay, but can you afford a real Christmas tree (if you were planning to get one)? Who are you going to buy presents for and how much will you spend per person? Our office did Secret Santa this year at £10 minimum. I declined: I'd have done it for a fiver. Well humbug! I'm trying to keep a lid on my spending and that's where I was willing to drop the ball. Yeah... that's the downside of setting a budget: you have to decide what you're not going to spend and if you worry about what people will think it's going to hurt. Don't. If you feel the need to explain that you're watching your spending because you're afraid of getting into debt, you'll get more sympathy than condemnation, trust me on this.
Hampers and group presents
The trouble with buying for families is the number of people and getting things that suit each member. Kids can be picky and if you don't know what they're into buying presents can be tricky. This is where hampers come in. Group presents have something to please everyone in and nobody gets left out. Hampers don't have to be expensive and group presents don't have to be hampers. A box of chocs, fancy biscuits or a cake will do for people you don't know too well and often cost a fiver or less. They're often sold in pretty boxes so they look good when the package is opened. I've never had a box of Roses thrown back at me.
Hampers can be fun (and cost-effective) to make up yourself. You don't really need a fancy basket to put them in (although they're easy enough to find). A tray will do to sit them on. Then arrange them nicely on some shredded tissue and wrap them in clear cellophane, then cover the lot with wrapping paper. My dad-in-law loves pickled walnuts so he always gets a jar of those in his hamper (for him and my mum-in-law). I'll typically add some jars of fancy chutney, some crackers, some dips, and a drink to the selection. The in-laws and their families are getting a Genoa cake each, a box of crackers each, some chutneys, chips, and dips. I'll chuck in a bottle of fancy fizz for the kids and that'll do 'em. Total cost per family: between £12-20.
Online services can save you a great deal of time as well as money. Think about it: if you have to send the present far away you'll have to pay for postage and packing. The internet service will do all this for you. If you're worried about it not being personal enough, that tends to be very subjective. The truth is a present is a present is a present and people like to receive them. I'm sparing in my use of internet hampers because they can be quite expensive (the Irish ones are) but other options are available for individuals and groups. Check them out.
The little things add up, you'd be amazed at how much you end up wasting in terms of food, money, and wrapping paper, etc., not to mention time and effort. Food is a big one. When you prep a meal, serve it in a bowl or container from which you serve yourself less than you think you want. That way you only eat what you want and the rest remains in the container. You can use that again: I eat reheated dinner for lunch at work all the time. If you buy a turkey and roast it, you can re-freeze it because it has been cooked. As soon as you've finished the initial carving, pull all the meat off the bones while it's still warm and put it into a container. Now parcel it up in terms of what you're going to eat for the next day or so and what's going in the freezer. If you parcel up the freezer-bound portions you'll have individual meals ready to microwave when you want them. The left-over vegetables can also be frozen and reheated or used up over the next few days. You'd be surprised at how much money you save just doing that. We waste food so much in this country it's ridiculous.
Wrapping paper is another big one. Put your item on the paper and roll it over so you can see how much you require. You will need some overlap, but not that much. Cut away the excess paper and use the leftovers for smaller presents.
We all like quality products but don't be shy about using the Pound shops. I'm not. I've got some fantastic bargains in those places. Charity shops will sometimes sell new products — or unwanted presents from last year. Buy them. Nobody's going to know the difference and you'll save a few quid.
Keep and eye on your spending
I'd advise against carrying the amount of money you've set aside in your wallet or purse in case you get robbed but you do need to keep an eye on your spending. Use lists, mini-statements, and receipts to help keep a lid on it. Be ruthless with those lists: a card will do most people and those whom you always give presents to don't require much being spent on them: most people just like getting presents. If you can make your own, so much the better. Everybody likes home baking so why not bake a cake or biscuits to give away as presents? When I was broke I made chocolate Rice Krispies and wrapped them up nicely. They went down well enough. If you've got the time to be creative, go for it.
I love to decorate the house at Christmas. One of the cheapest ways to do this is to grab holly and ivy where it's growing wild and stick that up around the place. I also like to have a real tree. They can cost but the price tends to go down mid-December. If you have to trim the branches because it's too big to fit in the corner you've got a few bits for decoration. You can even make them into a wreath to put on your door. Charity shops tend to sell decorations if you need some new ones to check them out if you're on a tight budget.
3. Hassle-free feasting
I like to get something new every year so it's not just turkey all the time. I've got carp this year with nut roast on the side. A medley of Mediterranean vegetables roasted together with potatoes and plantain will follow, and after that there's sweet potato mash and colcannon. Soup to start, Christmas pudding to finish. Seven other people to share it with.
Keep it simple
Whatever you do, make sure you plan in advance what's going on the table. Listen to people who don't like this or that: sprouts are not essential to our health and I flippin' hate them myself but I eat everything else. If someone particularly likes them then by all means get them but you can buy them loose. You don't have to have them, is what I'm saying. Cook what people actually like.
Much of the hassle and waste that goes on at Christmas is to do with over-complicating the meal. Don't. Keep it simple. I'm just chucking all the vegetables into a turkey tray to roast. Mash will be easy enough, then I've only got to cook the curly kale to add to the normal mash to make the colcannon. If you want something more fancy then by all means do it but don't stress over it. If thy turkey offend thee, buy a ready-prepped one.
4. Include everyone in your activities
Another big stressor at Christmas is the running about sweating in a hot steamy kitchen while there's great stuff on the box and everyone else is lazing around watching it. Well why not get them to help? This is not bad hosting, people often offer to help. Well take them up on their kind offer and get them to peel the spuds, lay the table, and otherwise assist. This is a great way to bond with them and we've always ended up having a good time.
Wash your dishes as you go to avoid having a big pile to do later. Guests can help by stacking up their plates and bringing them into the kitchen. It'll all be done before you know it.
5. Give everyone something to open
It's cute to see presents under the tree but when you have dinner guests it's good to have something for each of them to open so they're part of it. Presents for dinner guests don't have to be expensive. I generally set a ceiling of £5 on presents for all but family and close personal friends. A mug with some sweets or fancy teabags in will do most people, as will bathing product sets, etc. It's just something to open from under the tree so that everyone is included in your Christmas.
Well I hope you'll find this little guide useful and that you all have a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.