It’s the 1st of December, and my office closes for our Christmas break in just under 3 weeks. Christmas is one of my favourite times of the year; I get to spend time with my family away from work, knowing that my desk will be as I left it when I return without a whole host of matters and work to catch up on. It’s particularly special this year, as I’ll have almost 2 weeks away with our offices not re-opening until 2nd January. Having Joseph also brings more enjoyment to Christmas, as watching him open his presents with the enthusiasm and joy only a child can have at Christmas brings back so many happy memories of my own childhood. I’m not a religious person so for me, the festive season is all about family time. Living on the Coast, although it’ll likely be quite cold on Christmas Day, we often like to go out for a walk along the foreshore to help Christmas dinner settle.
Christmas can however, be a difficult and unhappy time for some. People who are alone and lonely can often feel more so at Christmas; when Joseph is a little older, I hope to be able to volunteer with the Salvation Army on Christmas day with Sarah and Joseph spending time helping those in need. I think that contributing beyond yourself is something that we all should try to do as much as we reasonably can – it’s a wonderful feeling to know that you’ve been able to help someone who truly needed it and the Salvation Army took care of my Mother when she was young when her own parents were going through a difficult time. Whenever we see a Salvation Army collection box, we try to put in at least a pound or two for that reason.
Many families also struggle with affording Christmas; buying presents, food and having to take holidays away from work (sometimes unpaid) with the kids being away from school. My family always managed as my parents worked damned hard (my Father would work during the day, my Mother at night) to make sure we never went without anything, although we were by no means spoiled (certainly not by today’s standards!). Compulsory consumption, buying things because that’s what you’re SUPPOSED to do, is a big problem in our society and never more so than at Christmas. The television is flooded with advertisements aimed directly at children who of course then want the things they’ve seen to be bought for them as gifts to frantically unwrap on 25th December. When you’re living on a tight budget already, this can bring extra stress to households already struggling to get by and grief to parents, who just want to see their children happy.
I’m fond of my “experiments” (I’m sure this will come up often in my blog!) and this year, Sarah has agreed that we can “do Christmas” on an agreed budget. Both Sarah and I have jobs that enable us to afford whatever we want or need pretty much whenever we want or need it and there’s just no need to buy things for the sake of it. I’m a doting father and I’m sorry to admit that I already spoil Joseph most weeks in any event. Even though I want to be a minimalist, it’s not something I will force on him. He can make his own decisions when he’s old enough to do so.
So, how has our Christmas budget been set? I want to pay for all our gifts and food etc., without spending any REAL money. For the purposes of this experiment, REAL money is defined as money from earnings resulting from our employment. We shop often at Sainsbury’s Supermarket and have a credit card which generates Nectar points each time we use it. This results in a fair amount of points building up over the course of a year and, even after spending a substantial amount of them in the last few months, our current balance is £60. I also have a £20 Marks & Spencer Gift Card which was a gift from a Client and a bottle of Moet, also a gift from a Client. So, £80 in total and no need to buy a bottle of anything to have with Christmas dinner. I’m not a fan of champagne, but we’ll drink it to save on buying anything else, and it was a nice gift in any event.
Now, this is where we cheat a little bit – you see, we can’t buy everything we might want from Sainsbury’s, so what we do is use the Nectar points to pay for our weekly food shop in exchange for cash from the shopping budget, which can then be spent anywhere. Sarah has bought me one of my favourite films for £10 from Amazon (we’d usually try to shop locally, but it’s unlikely this particular film will show up in the few places where we can buy Blu-Rays in our little town) and I will spend about the same on her. Joseph will be inundated with gifts from everyone else so we’ll buy him a little gift worth about the same amount as ours. So, £30 on gifts, which leaves a whopping £50 for food – some of which we’ll buy from Marks & Spencer to use up the voucher with the rest coming from Sainsbury’s using up the balance Nectar points if needed. Done. Christmas “for free”.
With regards the credit card by the way, I clear the balance every month automatically and never pay interest. We use it as an expenses account and as you can see, we do get quite a bit of benefit from it. We don’t absolutely need the line of credit but it keeps our ratings topped-up just in case we ever need credit for anything (mortgage, car etc.) and everything purchased on the card is automatically insured as an added bonus (in case of fraud etc.).
Whilst some of my friends understand and support these ideas, quite a few of them do not and have openly accused me of being a Scrooge, as if I’m robbing Joseph of something. The difficulty is that the message of compulsory consumption (or even over-consumption) at Christmas is so ingrained in our culture, you’re seen as being odd or a penny-pinch if you don’t comply. It’s important that we remember the important thing about Christmas is our loved ones; material possessions rarely make us happy in the long-run. Often the best gift you can give is your time – being present, rather than giving presents; as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, life is short and the memories we make with our families are far more important than any physical gift we might give or receive and will stay with us the rest of our lives.