How to Enjoy a Fabulous Family Christmas on a Budget

Well, we can avoid it no longer!  The C word has to be mentioned, with Channel 5 full of Christmas movies and specials this weekend; a whole festive aisle already in most supermarkets; and all the special offers starting to plop into our inboxes.  The girls' favourite film was even on ITV2 yesterday evening: "Pizza Hup".  You know that one, of course?  Oh hang on:

Pizza Hup = Pizza Hut = Pizza Express = Polar Express

Yeah, it took us a while too!

Obscure, child-conjured film titles apart, for many parents, this time of year comes with a heavy sense of dread.  Dread about the organisation, the preparations, everything there is to do, but most of all, how much it's all going to cost.  Being on a budget makes Christmas a tricky time, with all the advertising, the Dickensian-lite imagery, and the high, high expectations.  Luckily, we have some tips for you on how to do Christmas on a budget, and a good Christmas at that - you don't need to give everyone a painted loo roll tube, honest!

We don't believe the 'it's only a day' argument, it shouldn't be, if you have young children, make Christmas last all month - create memories, not piles of discarded gifts.  Yet nor do we think Christmas should be ruined because they don't get the must-have toy, if there's one big thing they really, really want, get it, if you can, and economise elsewhere.

Here are our top tips on how to do the best Christmas you can, on a budget:

1. Shop throughout the year, picking up gifts for family and friends, and children's stocking fillers, as you see them - preferably in the sales, in charity shops, on eBay, at car boot sales, from pound shops etc.  Yes, it's October now, but you still have plenty of time to do this.  Start this week, and try to visit different towns or different stores each week, you'll be amazed at what you find.

2. Save a little each week towards the children's big presents.  Even a couple of pounds a month will make a real difference when you get to December.

3. Think about raising money by having a car boot sale, or selling unwanted toys on Facebook selling groups, eBay or other sites.  You could also have a go at comping, as there will be loads around over the next few months, including some of those must-have gifts.  Use sites like The Prizefinder or MSE for comprehensive lists of competitions, and enter as many as possible.

4. When it comes to buying those big presents, shop around online.  Compare prices, keep an eye on deals, sign up to e-mails so you're the first to know about secret sales, but don't buy too early unless you can save 30% or more.  Another deal may be just around the corner...

5. Sign up to a cashback site to make even greater savings, but check what you'll get back and how quickly before you buy.

6. Make gifts if your skills lie that way, or look out for local craft sales, or small stores on Etsy or Facebook.  You could find something beautiful and different for just a few pounds.  Edible gifts to neighbours and grandparents from the small people are sure to go down well too, especially if they are accompanied by a visit and a chat!

7. Buy family gifts instead of one for each adult and each child, something like a great board game or a membership to an organisation such as the RSPB or National Trust will last longer than a few material goods.

8. Personalised gifts go down well with most people, so think photo gifts for grandparents and Godparents; me-in-the-story books for nieces and nephews; and personalised mugs or calendars for aunties and uncles.

9. If you need to send gifts overseas, check the last posting dates now and get organised as early as possible.  You can still send via International Economy to most countries, but get in quick!

10. Stock up on food with a long shelf life from September onwards, and store it well out of sight. Same for basics like loo roll etc. If it's on offer and you have space in a big cupboard, spare room, dry garage etc, buy it!

11. Make as many lists as you can stomach!  Have a master gift list, stocking filler list, Christmas week menu plan, Christmas shopping list, and then sub-lists of foods to buy in advance, other essentials, fresh food, and last-minute buys such as fresh fruit and vegetables.  Get EVERYTHING on your lists, and check it off meticulously as you go.  And, of course it goes without saying, if it ain't on the list, you ain't buying it!

12. Downgrade your brand expectations on food, shop around, and look out for the recommendations from websites and magazines about the best food and drink buys of the season.  (Our taste tests were hugely popular last week and will be repeated this season.)  Think back to previous years too, if no-one's that keen on dates/cranberry sauce/Christmas pudding, do you really need to have them?!

13. If you're really starpped for cash, have an 'eat what you've already got' week (or two) where you get creative with all the food you already have in, i.e. the back of your store cupboards and the bottom of your freezer.  It's amazing what you can make with all those forgotten about bits and bobs, and the money you didn't spend on one or two week's regular food shop should pay for all the Christmas stuff easily.

14. Check out our How to save Money at the Supermarket article, for ideas like couponing, using new stores on and offline, and more.  Adopt some new habits and you could save money every week, not just at Christmas.

15. Find out who's going where, for which meals, and how long they might stay for, as soon as possible.  If family and friends are coming to you, assign an item/category to each person for the big meal stuff to split the costs. And make sure you have discussions early so no-one is left wondering what's going on!

16. Have a similar conversation about gift expectations.  Do you need to buy for all children, but not all adults?  What do people expect?  If you always exchange bottles of wine or other unexciting gifts with friends, just because you always have, do you need to go on doing so?  Would a heartfelt message in a beautiful card, a seasonal walk, or a trip to a coffee shop to catch up, mean more?

17. Try to get all the present buying and wrapping out of the way early and make the month leading up to the 25th as magical as possible. Go to your local lights switch on; see Father Christmas (several times if possible!); attend local school fairs and events; go to markets or quaint towns to look round and soak up the atmosphere, rather than because you need to shop; go to church for the festive services; do all things festive.  One of our favourites is driving or walking round to see all the Christmas lights on everyone's houses, the girls love it.  Find all the cheap and free events you can, and go along. That's the stuff your children will remember, not what present they got.

18. Spend lots of fun family time together at home too: bake mince pies, cakes and sausage rolls; make cards and decorations; do Christmas crafts (start saving recycling stuff now!); read Christmas books and watch Christmas DVDs (check the charity shops and supermarkets for bargains); do other things you know you're family will enjoy and remember.  Make every day from the end of November special.

19. On Christmas Day itself, don't buy into the materialistic frenzy of ripping open a pile of presents and then feeling empty for the rest of the day.  Try one present from Father Christmas in the morning, then spread the rest out during the day.  Or have stockings in the morning and the rest of the gifts after lunch.  You could even organise a treasure hunt for smaller gifts.  Remember, Christmas should be about family and fun, not commercial highs and lows.

20. First things first, take a deep breath and determine your budget between now and Christmas.  Cut back where you can, make your lists, plan, plan, plan, and then sit back and feel smug.  Follow our tips, keep what's most important at the forefront of your mind, and you'll get through the next few months with ease, and have a fabulous Christmas at the end of it too.  Enjoy!

Look out for all our other Christmas articles, gift guides, and taste test features coming soon.  For now, our post How to Avoid Christmas Stress may also help with prioritising what really matters to you this year.

And don't forget to enter our competitions!