Eleanor writes on many topics, including parenting, single parenting, party and activity ideas, and career and home life.
How to Afford Christmas as a Single Parent
Christmas is supposed to be a time of happiness and magic, but for a struggling single parent, it can seem like another huge obstacle. In reality, Christmas has become a very commercial and expensive affair, magnifying inequalities within society. As a parent, you want to make the day as special as you can for your family, but when your finances are limited, it can be very stressful wondering how you are going to afford it in addition to the usual bills and outgoings. You know your children have hopes, whether or not they verbally express them. You know, too, that other children talk about Christmas at school, thus highlighting divisions even more.
As parents, we all want to make our children feel special at Christmas. But making that happen is a lot harder for some than for others. And that can lead to feelings of sadness and even guilt.
Christmas Can Make a Struggling Single Parent Feel Like a Failure
When you are living on a shoestring, and money is a constant struggle at the best of times, Christmas becomes more than a chance to treat your loved ones and surprise them on a special day. It becomes a hurdle, often more depressing than joyful. It is far-fetched from the stereotypical affair portrayed by commercial Christmas adverts, where happy families gather around the tables of comfortable homes, gleefully opening gifts amidst lavish decorations. For so many caught in poverty, it's simply not reality. And on top of that, our email inboxes are full of messages from stores telling us what to buy as gifts to make the 'perfect' Christmas. When times are hard and this kind of spending is out of reach, it can make you feel as though you are firmly on the outside whilst everyone else is enjoying the festivities.
In short, it can make you feel like a failure, and that is enough to make any struggling single parent feel depressed. And it's no wonder when the average UK consumer spends a whopping £432 on gifts at Christmas, and the average family around £800 (Telegraph, 2015). To many single parents, and indeed any family on a low income, spending on this level is a pie-in-the-sky dream. Living on the breadline with no savings often means there is simply no spare money for splashing out on anything extra. But parents on low incomes don't love their children any less, so instead, they are left feeling saddened and regretful because they can't do for their children what other parents do for theirs. Many parents sink into debt, using credit cards in a bid to make Christmas special. But that can be a dangerous solution with spiraling consequences and is best avoided.
So, if you are a single parent struggling with money at Christmas, what can you do to make it better? Here are ten tips!
1. Put Tiny Amounts of Money Aside All Year Round
It sounds almost too simple, but putting aside tiny amounts of money regularly over the year can soon add up. Save all your small change, and put it into a jar. Even when you are cash strapped, you probably won't miss it; we all have those small coins hanging around at the bottoms of our bags and in our pockets. If you don't delve into it then you should have at least enough for one or two gifts by the end of the year.
It's actually quite surprising how quickly small change can add up. I once cashed in all the old changes I had stashed away, and it totalled £129. Although that was probably collected over a fairly long period of time, it shows how much money you can have without realizing it.
I also have a friend who saved all her two-pound coins in a jar to spend on her son's birthday party. Saving just one two-pound coin every week results in more than one hundred pounds per year that you could spend on Christmas.
The secret is to start saving your change very early on in the year so that you allow yourself to accumulate as much cash as possible.
2. Sell Something
We live in an age of digital selling, so if you want to raise a one-off amount of money, sell something, or several things, that you no longer want.
Facebook has become a huge platform for locally selling secondhand goods, and almost every area has its own pages where you can advertise and sell your stuff for free. You might not think it's worth anything, but for some people, it might be. Unwanted furniture for upcycling, classic toys that are no longer played with, kitchen gadgets you never use, clothes your children have grown out of, baby items, roller skates that are too small - sell it all and put the money towards your Christmas fund.
Gumtree is another great selling site that you can use to advertise locally, cutting the need for delivery hassles. And everybody knows eBay, although you will have to pay a cut, so you won't get the full amount- for that reason, it is my least favourite option.
Selling second-hand items is becoming more and more popular as we all become more environmentally conscious. Remember the old saying "One man's rubbish is another man's treasure"? By passing your unwanted items along, you are doing yourself, someone else, and even the planet a favour.
3. Begin Your Christmas Shopping Early
Christmas often seems horrendously expensive because we need to purchase a lot of items all at the same time. But if you space out the cost over weeks or even months, it can feel less like a hammer blow. You absolutely do not need to wait until mid-November or December to begin your Christmas shopping. In fact, if money is an issue, then you should definitely get a head start. Purchase gifts anytime throughout the year – when you see something suitable, grab it and put it away until the big day. Not only is it less of a shock to your budget come December, but it solves the problem of not being able to find something for that one annoying relative two days before the big day.
This type of approach also enables you to take advantage of any sales that occur throughout the year. It's not just all about Black Friday—stores have summer sales and general reduction sales all the time. Spreading your spending out also means that you are more likely to spot that 'special' gift—too often, people waste money at Christmas on stuff no one really wants, simply because they're in a mad, frantic dash to 'get it all done'.
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So, start as early as you can. It's true that children's likes and interests can be changeable (so you might want to hold off for unpredictable kids), but for other family members and even for young children, it's definitely the way forward if you need to spread your finances.
4. Save on Gift Buying by Being Creative
Save on gift-buying by treating your children but refusing to go overboard with all the adults in your family. Extended family will understand your need to cut back – and if they don't, they should.
If you want to treat grandparents, then make them something. This can save you a lot of money. Get the kids to draw a special picture and buy a cheap frame for it – it will cost you next to nothing from a cheap store. It's not a cop-out – these sorts of gifts are often treasured far more than anything you can get in the shops, and will never be thrown away due to sentimental value.
If you have a baby or toddler, you could print their hands or feet onto a piece of good quality art paper (single sheets are available from good art departments) and, again, purchase a cheap frame. Or if your children are older and don't want to draw or paint their feet, instead make a collage of extended family photos and buy a multi-frame. It costs just pence to print out small pics in photo labs, but the memories are priceless.
Lots of people have skills that can be utilised at Christmas. If you are a seasoned knitter, knit everyone a new scarf and start way before December so that the run-up to Christmas is as stress-free as possible. If you are good at art, create something to hang on the wall. Can you make jewellery? Soap? Many pastimes can be used to produce beautiful gifts at a fraction of the price charged in stores, and they will be all the more special because you made it. Depending on your individual skills, the possibilities for inexpensive, yet treasured, home-made gifts is endless. And remember – it will be more, not less, special,
Many people are getting sick of the over-commercialism that now comes with Christmas, so making something to give is a step away from that and turns gift-giving into something more thoughtful and unique.
5. Buy Second-Hand
Not only are sites like Facebook and Gumtree great for selling your unwanted stuff, but they are also brilliant for picking up good-quality bargains.
If you struggling to afford gifts, search online – especially if you have young children, who are often less specific about what they want and won't even notice a slightly battered box. Toys can often appear as good as new for a tiny fraction of the original selling price. Good quality toys like Playmobil are timeless and will last forever (I once purchased my son a Playmobil football pitch and a Playmobil Dragon's Castle in perfect condition with lots of accessories for much less than half the original price). You can pick up reasonable bikes for as little as £20, consoles too, although the latest ones tend to hold their value. In fact, virtually anything your child might ask for can be found in used condition online.
It's also worth noting that you can easily pick up a better quality used item for the same price as a cheaper brand new product. It's a good place to look for older children who hanker after expensive BMX bikes or stunt scooters, for example, when quality and brand are deemed important.
Local sites are preferable simply because you are avoiding postage charges and because you can view the item before you buy. I also think they tend to be cheaper than eBay, where the price is pushed up by bidders for popular items. In my experience, people who post items on eBay are often more concerned with making money than sellers on Facebook, who often just want to have a clear-out and get rid of things. Remember, electrical items like consoles and TVs should be seen working before you commit.
Decent secondhand books can be found in all sorts of places; some of them have only been read once and are in almost perfect condition. Keep an eye out for something your children or family members would like. In addition to second-hand copies, you can purchase brand new books at knockdown prices from sites like The Book People - some of their box sets come with incredible savings, and they have excellent reviews.
You should never think of buying second-hand in an inferior option – in fact, giving something a second lease of life is a positive environmental decision. What's more, younger children won't even notice, and even older children probably won't care. Often, the only difference may be the lack of an original box or a slight scratch on a bike that would quickly happen anyway.
6. Join Forces for Big Gifts
When you know your children really have their heart set on something and you simply can't afford it, consider joining forces with other family members and getting one big gift from lots of people. Although you should never feel forced into spending lots of money, all parents know that children often want what their friends have and don't want them to miss out.
If you are a single parent and you are on reasonable terms with your ex, consider asking him to put towards something bigger. (This will work for some parents and not for others, depending on the relationship you now have with your children's other parent.) Also, consider asking both sets of grandparents and any aunts or uncles that might be buying gifts.
The reality is that children from all backgrounds often end up with one or two Christmas gifts that they love, and many that barely see the light of day. Many children, when given the choice, would probably prefer to receive one special gift over lots of random items bought by a well-meaning family.
Last year I joined forces with my ex-partner to get our son the piano keyboard he wanted – both of us would rather do that than to each get him something cheaper that he didn't want. In previous years my mum has also contributed to bigger gifts, rather than buy something separate on her own.
7. The Christmas Meal
A Christmas dinner does not have to cost a lot more than any other cooked meal. Often, it is the little additions that make the difference – roasted parsnips or courgettes on the side, the cranberry or bread sauce, roast potatoes sprinkled with rosemary.
In the UK, Turkey is the traditional meat to accompany a Christmas dinner, although some people prefer chicken, which is usually cheaper. Marinating your meat with honey and ginger can make it special for Christmas.
Don't invite lots of extended families over for Christmas dinner if you can't afford it, unless they are going to be contributing to the cost of the meal. Even if it is what you have always done in the past, if you are now a struggling single parent, it is perfectly fine to admit it's now too much. Sometimes people don't think and are perfectly happy to chip in once prompted. Otherwise, invite them after dinner instead.
I believe the best large Christmas family meals happen when everyone takes responsibility for a certain task. If you are expecting company, delegate tasks. Pigs in blankets can be prepared in advance and brought by someone else. Ditto the dessert, and the wine, and even the sauces. Not only does it save money, but it makes the meal a less stressful event for the host and a more inclusive affair.
8. Make Things With Your Kids
In the lead-up to Christmas, try to do as many inexpensive, Christmassy things as possible. If the children are not old enough to have outgrown it, make lots of decorations. It's so much cheaper than buying them, and you can bond over it. Make snowflakes for the window and things to hang on the tree. If you have paper or card, pens and scissors, glue and perhaps some glitter and tissue paper, you have everything you need.
Make Christmas biscuits or cakes, or even a gingerbread house. Once you have all the ingredients, making your own treats are cheaper than buying them, and it's more fun as well. What's more, you can make extra and take them as gifts for grandparents, aunts and uncles, and even friends and neighbors.
Just as with the decorations, baking with your children is special – they value the time you spend with them more than anything.
9. Don't Waste Money on Buying Cards
Commercial greetings cards are not only expensive but an environmental disaster since they end up in the recycling bin by January. Lots of people now refrain from sending cards at all, solely for this reason.
If you really want to send cards, get the kids to make a special one using cards for grandparents, etc. But otherwise, save yourself some money by not bothering. It's not necessary and it's money saved.
10. Read Christmas Books
Reading with your children is one of the most important things you can do. Reading a magical book, all cuddled up on the sofa with a hot chocolate, creates a really special environment. After all, when life has hit a hard point, what better way to escape it than to travel in your minds to another place.
There are lots of Christmas books available for all different ages. The Snowman, The Polar Express, The Jolly Postman – in fact, there are too many to mention. Books don't even have to be about Christmas to feel Christmassy – there is a beautifully illustrated version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, that could be read aloud over many days in the lead-up to Christmas Day; the original story of Pinocchio is another great choice.
You don't even have to buy the books to enjoy them with your children – check out your local library, and if you want a particular book and it's not there, reserve it.
Remember What Is Important
It's easy to get swept along with the commercial hype that Christmas has become, but that's really not what it's all about. Christmas is a time for love, for family, and for showing that you care in the ways that you can.
Above all, it's about spending time together – eating, playing a board game, watching a classic Christmas movie, going for a walk on Christmas afternoon. As a nation, we spend far too much money in stores, and a week later most of what we've bought is forgotten.
But memories last forever. Don't put lots of money behind it – put your time behind it instead.
As a struggling single parent, you can definitely have a wonderful Christmas with your family, especially if you have prepared well in advance. It just takes a little bit more thought and that extra bit of planning.
Remember, Christmas should be a time for everyone, not just those who can afford it.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Dominique Cantin-Meaney from Montreal, Canada on January 04, 2020:
These are really amazing suggestions. We live on one income, and things can be difficult. I'll definitely remember this for next year.