I’ve already talked a bit about gift ideas, but one more is worth mentioning. It’s a gift from when I was very young. Mum bought a bracelet with paua shell hearts and de constructed it, breaking it apart to form a number of necklaces for gifts. I still have the necklace because it was it was such a clever lovely gift. It reminds me of the strength of love in adversity.
Food is another expense that can be difficult to get around over Christmas. If you’re really struggling, see if someone local is offering hampers. That can really help to put some special food on the table on Christmas day. Hampers that you pay off over the year in small amounts can make sure there’s money being put aside for food. Some shops offer a Christmas fund where you add in perhaps $5 every time you grocery shop, then spend the money just before Christmas. Anything you can cook yourself will almost certainly be cheaper than buying it. Nibbles like gingerbread smell festive and wonderful and don’t cost much to make. Decorating them is the sort of thing many kids love. You can buy some items in bulk and break them down into smaller portions. There are also many places who hold free lunches on Christmas day – if you’re lonely and broke this can be a really nice community way to spend the day.
Don’t feel you have to follow any food traditions. There’s no point paying for a plum pudding if no one in your family likes it. If a lovely big roast chicken and a little handful of prawns would be more special than a serve of dry turkey, then do it. If you’re not a great cook and tend to ruin unfamiliar recipes, stick to what you know and add festive trimmings like cranberry sauce. Have something small special and make the rest affordable, and don’t waste money on things you don’t like. I’m a foodie, so in previous years I’ve started baking Christmas cakes and puddings in about August. This helps to spread out the costs and gives the flavour time to develop. I also often put away one or two special bottles of drink just for the Christmas season. Part of what makes the food special is that it’s different to what we eat during the rest of the year. So, if you can, identify a couple of your favourites, and don’t have them at any other time. They become something to look forward to, something that marks the festive season and helps to herald the Christmas spirit. These kind of small family rituals can be very soothing during difficult years.
Decorating is another area that’s difficult to pull off without any money. I spent one Christmas recently in a caravan park, with very little money. I ignored the idea of a tree, as I had no room, but bought a couple of lengths of tinsel from a cheap store. I hand made paper decorations, cutting doves and stars and bells out of cheap sketching paper and hanging them around the van. I ran an oil burner with a festive smelling blend for most of December. In other years I’ve cut a branch of any tree – gum tree works just fine, and decorated that as our cheap Christmas tree. I’ve heard of people reusing Christmas cards for their tree decorations. Cookies can also be wrapped in cellophane and hung on the tree, and popcorn garlands can be used instead of tinsel. If you can afford a fake tree and have somewhere to store it they can last for many years.
Activities – here’s an area our culture isn’t all that good at. In many families the only way you can have fun is with money and/or alcohol. When you’re broke it can seem that you’re missing out on everything. There are many community events free at this time of year, and religious services open to everyone. Community centres often hold festive days, local schools and aftercare programs likewise. Keep an eye on your local paper to see what’s happening you might like to be part of. Depending on your interests, you can start to develop a repertoire of cheap activities that you and your family can enjoy. I love trips to the beach, especially in stormy weather. Some days I pack up a hamper for dinner and head out to the ocean – it’s still cheap because I’m not buying food down there, all I have to come up with is fuel money or bus tickets. Another of my favourites is games nights. I love card games and board games, many of those can be bought second hand very inexpensively. With a group of friends there’s a lot of fun to be had, and if everyone brings a plate or drink to share the cost is very small. Film nights can set you back just the cost of the dvd rental, or time them for when something good is on tv. Camps can be great, backyard cricket days, poetry nights, baking nights, beading nights… depends on what you and your mates are into. Take the kids to the park, the dog for a walk, get some books from the library, run around spraying each other with water pistols… once you starting thinking cheap and fun the possibilities are endless. It can take a little while to get into the mindset and stop feeling like you’re missing out, but with some time you do get there. Even in years when money has been better, I’ve so looked forward to our Christmas Eve traditional games night, and every year I’m asked to make my batch of coconut rum truffles.
Sometimes having a lot of money to throw around can make you forget about these kinds of things. There are special moments in watching the kids bake with Grandma, or taking hand made cards around to the neighbours. Being broke can help you bypass the grasping consumerism of a commercial Christmas and focus instead on taking a break, having some fun, catching up with friends, kindness, generosity, sharing… If you’re not broke, take a moment to remember those who are, especially those who are sick and families with young kids. You may be able to give them a small hamper, or help out with babysitting. It’s hard to be creative and festive when you’re exhausted, and most broke parents are pretty tuckered out by the end of the year. Someone turning up to clean the kitchen could be the best Christmas present ever.
Take care and be kind.