How I coped when all my Christmas savings were wiped out by a single accident

IIt was during the big freeze in December 2010 that my carefully planned Christmas budget began to fall dramatically. We had done well so far. I had skimped and saved so we could plan a wonderful Christmas morning for our 2 year old boy and 11 year old daughter. I had been saving money from the grocery budget each week and had carefully moved pieces around in a large jar of change; dreaming of a wonderful Christmas day when Santa brought us everything we wanted.

The times weren’t Dickensian but they were tight. We had negotiated a monthly reduction on the mortgage and received a family income supplement (now the working family payment) due to low income.

People say accidents happen in the blink of an eye, but the events of that Sunday night are still remembered in slow motion. We were driving down a hill in the Dublin countryside after checking on family we saw a lorry stuck in the middle of the road. My husband pumped the brakes but we inexorably slid at the front of the truck, unable to stop in time due to the slippery conditions.

We were fine, and the car was sort of in working order but needed repairs. This money had to come from somewhere and of course the Christmas fund was the first port of call.

“It will be grand,” I remember saying as I balanced delicately. We shopped around to get the best deal on the essential repairs, leaving the paint job until after Christmas as it wouldn’t affect the drivability of the car.

I hugged the kids closer and kissed their cheekbones gratefully. At night, I would fall asleep literally counting pennies to figure out how I could make the budget work for us. Doesn’t the smallest child know better than the eldest lemon? She was at an age limit. Child Christmas was for me a moment filled with love, magic, light and family. Santa Claus has always brought me something I wanted and I so want to recreate that atmosphere, that feeling of being safe, loved, warm and full for my own children.

We can often laugh at children’s eyes when we struggle. They don’t really notice it because they are happy, loved and well nourished.

I find that the heart of the financial pressures of Christmas revolves around the day itself. I decided to focus on creating a good atmosphere for the kids, making sure Santa gets his secret wishes (they only ask for surprises in our house), catching up with the family, and putting happy children in bed that night.

Some of the traditions that we have put in place since the children were small protect the family, especially the children, from the lean times that we have known. This includes insisting that letters are always written before the Late Late Toy Show to avoid any last minute changes in plans. In these letters, they can request an item, plus a surprise. That’s it. Santa knows what they like, and he’s never wrong. If the item they’re asking for is expensive, they know Santa might not bring it, even if he always does his best.

Now that the children are older, they know that I send money to Santa Claus for their presents. It tempers their expectations because I can easily tell them if a gift is too expensive.

Caitriona Redmond. Photo: Emily Quinn

It was time to discuss gifts with my extended family. Gift giving is such a big part of Christmas and when things were going well, we spent the whole month of December shopping for the perfect gift for everyone. My husband and I love the suspense and fun of gifts, but it was time to think hard about how we could save money.

It turns out we weren’t the only ones feeling the pinch that year and the family came on board with a Kris Kindle which dramatically reduced the number of gifts to buy. Even better, this tradition has remained and the Kris Kindle night where we get together and exchange gifts before the day is a highlight of our annual calendar.

Not having to rush from house to house on Christmas Day or the day after means a much more relaxing day for the kids to enjoy their toys. There is the added benefit of not having to drive unless we absolutely have to, which reduces fuel costs.

Starting the conversation with our family about our struggles gave others a voice and I’m so grateful that we spoke with each other and for the sense of community it created.

Being stuck for money brings with it so many feelings. There is helplessness and frustration because you cannot buy what you want. Then there’s sadness and loneliness because you can’t participate in activities or go places with your friends. 12 Christmas ads? Forget that. A meal at the restaurant or a panto with friends? It’s definitely off the menu.

By opening up with my friends and family about how hard it was for me to find things, I discovered solidarity. Knowing that I was not alone brought a little light into a dark space. We started supporting each other. OK, it was like two leaning towers that barely held together sometimes, but we were still standing.

I found myself pushing a shopping cart to do the “department store” on Christmas Eve with one of my sisters. It was 11 p.m. and we were sober but dizzy from shopping on a budget. I had brought a calculator and a list; we were looking at everything on the shelves and actively looking for yellow stickers. It was probably the most fun shopping I’ve ever had with my co-conspirator.

Although it seems like a gloomy Christmas, it was probably one of the most truly magical Christmases I’ve had. I will always remember how financial disaster taught me the value of family, friends, and the ability to adapt.

You might hear people talk about resilience and how you can bounce back from tough times.

I know I’ve had a lot of hands lifting me up along the way. It’s the spirit of Christmas.

Managing Christmas shopping on a budget

The trip to the supermarket before the main day, however, is where we are all prone to the most impulsive purchases. There are Christmas traditions in our house that revolve around food. For example, it was always a treat for my siblings and I to have Sugarpuffs on Christmas morning; there were always boxes of chocolates to make fun of with bags of King crisps in my husband’s house (always King at Christmas in a cardboard box); and premium cookie boxes, not to mention bottles of lemonade and liquor for visitors.

You know what? These were our childhood traditions and as we are adults now, we can create new ones that don’t involve as much expense and certainly have less stress!

Here are some short points to keep in mind over the next two weeks so you can try to cut back on your Christmas shopping.

  • Make your list and double check it (if it’s good enough for Santa, it’s good enough for you).
  • Leave without children (no gimme-gimme attacks to spend more money).
  • Know your budget.
  • Buy only what you need.
  • Be blunt, if there are items you rarely eat or have always had in the cupboard for months, throw them out and don’t buy.
  • Make sure you have storage space so you don’t run into a turkey or ham that didn’t take up the whole fridge. Also, make sure your oven can handle all those foods you intend to cook.
  • Many hands do light work. Ask for help, don’t wait for it to be offered. Give work to those you need to help. People are not psychic; I found out that you need to tell people what you need before they take action.