Martin Lewis: How to go Christmas cold turkey
If there was a big red CANCEL CHRISTMAS button, would you press it? While the festive season is usually portrayed as unerringly joyous, not everyone feels that way. It can put stress on you and on your pockets. So, forgive me, but to relieve that pressure, and possibly increase happiness, it is worth considering going cold turkey.
You may think this is me being Scrooge (bah humbug). It isn't. In fact, in our cancel Christmas poll, which received 13,198 votes, 53% of people said they would cancel Christmas if they could. The only categories where a majority wouldn't were mums and dads of school-age kids.
So if you are ill-prepared for Christmas, panicking about how you'll afford it, or worried about a debt hangover in the New Year, I want to give you some tips.
Some are just common sense, but people avoid them, worrying they'll seem weird by opting out. I hope by writing this, it'll relieve some of the stigma of being sensible.
1. Don't do a Christmas lust list
Many start to think about how to have the perfect Christmas – yet for most, that leads to debt or disappointment. Instead, boringly, focus on the finances first. Work out how much you've got to spend and ask yourself "what is the best Christmas I can have on that cash?"
If you're really struggling and have nothing, then do truly go cold turkey – see family, spend time, think about life, watch the telly, but don't spend money on it. Christmas is just one day. Far more important is a happier, financially less-stressed New Year.
2. Make a pre-NUPP
The season of goodwill has been perverted by advertisers and marketeers into becoming a retail festival. We feel forced into buying unnecessary gifts for friends and family because they've bought for us.
This isn't about gifts for kids or your spouse – they're fine. It's that wider group of people – friends, cousins, schoolteachers – we end up buying for. When we do tit-for-tat giving, most people end up with tat. It's not good for our wallets, or the environment.
Let's be honest, we've all bought something for someone we knew they didn't really want or need, just to tick them off the list.
There's still time to make a pre-NUPP, a pre-Christmas, No Unnecessary Present Pact – an agreement with friends that you won't give gifts this year, or at least that you'll cap the price.
In September, I spoke about this on my live ITV show (I do my Christmas special in September, not to celebrate early, but as there's still time to plan). It seems that started a movement. A three-minute video of it went viral, here and in other countries. On Facebook alone it's had over 13 million views. If you've not seen it, here it is...
It has been shared 251,000 times so far, often by people who tell me they did that as a way to tell friends they wanted a pre-NUPP (feel free to do it and blame me). Best of all, rather than their friends being unhappy, most people seem to be grateful kindred spirits.
Christina tweeted: "@MartinSLewis, just watched... texted everyone... including hubby... to say let's not bother gifting... heart in my mouth... but everyone agreed! Feel like a weight is lifted! Thank you."
Pauline emailed: "Just watched, Martin. Your speech about cutting down (or out) presents moved me to tears. As [I'm] a pensioner on the state pension, Christmas is hard enough for me to buy nice presents for my sons, their wives, my grandchildren and great grandchildren – and my partner. Giving me permission to NOT have to do that has made me feel a whole lot better! Memories are more important than buying the latest iPad or gadget! Thank you."
And for those thinking "what about the gift of giving?", well, you may give to someone who's struggling financially thinking it's generous, but it actually often simply obliges them to buy back for you at a similar value.
Imagine you give them a £20 scarf, and they give you £20 socks. The net effect is they've spent £20 on the scarf you gave them – that mis-prioritises their finances. They may have preferred to spend that money on feeding the kids.
Sometimes the best gift is releasing someone from the obligation of buying for you (more on this in the Ban Unnecessary Christmas Presents blog.
And if that leaves you feeling short-changed, why not donate to charity in a friend's name, then you know the money really will do some good – see Charity Gifts.
3. Give time, not money – free personal gift vouchers
If you are giving presents, they don't have to equate to big bucks. One easy idea is to give personal gift cheques – we've designed them for free for you to print out, see our free Christmas gift cheques. Use them to promise someone a baby-sitting session, to cook them a meal or even the 'special massage' that your partner loves (nudge, nudge).
According to vicars I've spoken to (I celebrate Hanukkah, not Christmas, at this time of year, so it's not for me to preach on), this is far closer to the original meaning of the season of goodwill – doing something nice for others, rather than just flashing the cash.
4. Little'uns aren't retail snobs – they don't care about how much you've spent
Children don't value your gift based on price – it doesn't matter to them if it costs £1 or £100. And when they're older they will want more expensive gifts, so you're better off saving the cash while you can.
In fact, there's the old saying that kids prefer the wrapping to the present. I tested this with a class of five-year-olds on my TV show a few years ago. I first gave them giant wrapped boxes just filled with balloons (carefully supervised – balloons can be dangerous). They loved it, and played for 20 minutes.
Then I gave them giant wrapped empty boxes – I told them they were empty before they were opened, so as not to disappoint. They ended up spending even more time, 40 minutes, being creative and pretending they were houses or spaceships.
My point isn't that you should give children empty boxes (though they may like it), more that you don't need to shell out big bucks to give them a great day.
5. Don't borrow, don't borrow, don't borrow (but if you will, do it at 0%)
I hope my message is clear here – DON'T borrow for Christmas, DON'T borrow for Christmas, DON'T borrow for Christmas. It's just one day, it's not worth it. Go cold turkey.
However, if you won't listen to that and will borrow anyway, at least do it as cheaply as possible. Calculate the minimum you 'need', and how much you can afford to repay. Spread the cost over 12 months or shorter (so you repay the borrowing long before next Christmas or the cycle just repeats, perpetuating the misery).
The best (or least worst) way is to use a 0% credit card to buy what you need (don't withdraw cash, use the card to pay). The longest 0% credit card for spending on currently is 23 months, but what counts is what you'll be accepted for. To find that out, use our 0% Spending Eligibility Calculator, and always make sure it's repaid before the rate hikes.
And if you try to get cheap borrowing but can't, frankly you'd be better off cancelling Christmas.
6. If you need debt help, don't wait until January
Sadly, Christmas isn't jolly for all. If you are worried, panicking or even ignoring your financial problems, the best thing to do is to go and seek out non-profit free debt-counselling help from the likes of National Debtline, Citizens Advice, StepChange or Christians Against Poverty.
Do it now, as in January, after the Christmas period, it's hugely busy and appointments are very difficult to get. They're there to help, not judge. The most common feedback I get from people who've done that is "I finally slept last night". You can read more about how they work in our Debt Help guide.
7. Raise cash to spend, rather than cash you've got
I know some people who even make their children sell their old toys to buy new ones. It's not a bad attitude. There are ways to try to raise cash. Start by doing a household stock take – walk around your home, see what you've not used in a year, and consider flogging it. See 44 eBay Selling Tips and Flogging on Facebook for more help.
Plus, as there's still a bit of time left, you could give up coffees, cigarettes or other small treats to build up some Christmas cash – check out your potential savings using our DemoHoHotivator tool. Or even look at switching bank account: there's up to £125 available for doing that, see Best Bank Accounts.
Do tell me below how you're feeling about Christmas, whether this helps, and your own cold turkey tips.
Have your say
This is an open discussion but the comments do not represent the views of MSE. We want everyone to enjoy using our site but spam, bullying and offensive comments will not be tolerated. Posts may be deleted and repeat offenders blocked at our discretion. Please contact email@example.com if you wish to report any comments.
Update: We are aware that some users may currently be having issues seeing the comments and we're working on it.