When Did We Decide That Overspending At Christmas Is Acceptable?

Photographed by Kieran Boswell.
“I’m dreading Christmas this year,” 30-year-old copywriter Megan — who didn’t want us to use her last name — tells Refinery29, over the phone. “I used to love it — the seasonal coffee menus, the lights, the presents and gatherings. This year, I honestly wish it would somehow get cancelled.” Megan is one of many people in the UK who’ve felt the weight of rising costs, something she says has “battered” her and her finances, and now the holiday season is unaffordable. 
“Christmas is basically out of the question,” she says. “I can turn up and eat but I can only spend a maximum of £100, and that’s still probably pushing it. I just have no idea how I’m supposed to tell my family. They’re expecting me [to be] home for the season but I can’t even afford the trip.” 
Christmas is supposed to be a time of merriment. What’s not to love about a holiday entirely dedicated to presents, parties, booze and spending time with the people you love most? But with the cost of living crisis still looming, prompting rises in British households’ rent, energy fees, grocery bills, petrol costs — you name it — the most wonderful time of the year has become a waking nightmare for many.  
Overspending is an unspoken staple of Christmas festivities: According to a 2012 study, it takes the average person a whopping four months to get their finances back into shape after the festive season, where they get into an average of £439 of debt. Not very festive.  
With 2023 seeing a 6.7% rise in inflation and no salary increases to match up, it’s easy to see how more than half (54%) of people said they are worried about being able to afford Christmas this year, according to a recent TopCashback study.
It’s clear that most of us are in the same boat, fearing impending Christmas finances. The most obvious solution is to make some serious cutbacks. Surely we can all have a great Christmas without throwing all that money around? Unfortunately, a survey from Standard Life says 42% of people still don’t feel comfortable talking with friends and family about money, leaving many of us unsure of how to navigate the awkward Christmas bill discussion. 
One of those people is 34-year-old project manager Hannah*. “I had a baby last year and this year our family was entirely focused on getting back on our feet after I was on less pay on maternity leave.” She tells Refinery29 that debt repayments from that time have taken up most of their income. “My partner and I had completely forgotten about Christmas until someone said it was a month away, and I burst into tears. I don’t know how the hell we will afford it,” she adds. 
Yet, Hannah is struggling to tell her family about it. “Everyone gets so excited for Christmas, especially my mum, and they’re especially excited this year because we have a new baby to enjoy it with. We’re obviously appreciative but part of me wishes Christmas would just disappear — we can’t afford it.” 
Jessica Alderson, cofounder and relationship expert at dating app So Synced, tells Refinery29 that the key to having more successful conversations about money at Christmas is to be honest and empathetic. 
If you need to tell your loved ones that you can’t afford to buy them expensive gifts, it’s important to do so with honesty and empathy. “Try not to beat around the bush or make excuses — explain that it just isn’t feasible at the moment due to your financial situation,” she advises, adding that the people in your life should be reassured that you care for them deeply, that they are a priority in your life, and that your Christmas gifting isn’t reflective of that. 
She notes that money is a particularly sensitive spot for most people, touching on our core values and beliefs. In the UK especially, money is “one of those” subjects to be avoided because of the sheer awkwardness. So, it’s important to approach these conversations with as much sensitivity as possible. 
Whoever you need to talk to, the process can be broken down into steps: 
1) If you’re on the receiving end of a difficult money conversation, such as your partner or parent telling you Christmas will be different due to money this year, Alderson stresses the importance of empathy here. “It’s unlikely that your partner or relative is actively trying to be difficult or selfish, so it’s important to listen and understand their perspective,” she says.
2) For couples, this can be a particularly difficult conversation to have. Many cohabiting couples share finances, or at least pay towards certain bills (including the festive ones) together. If couples feel differently about how Christmas spending from the same account should be, it can be messy. 
3) This is something 31-year-old photographer Poppy — who didn’t want us to use her last name — knows all too well. “My boyfriend and I don’t see eye to eye on finances any time of the year, but Christmas has been really hard. He’s so giving and wants to shower people with parents and worry about the money stuff later. But I’m not like that: I can’t stop thinking about the money part.”
Poppy tells Refinery29 her bills have skyrocketed since the cost of living crisis, and she knows Christmas could break them without a serious budget. “I need to sit him down and tell him clearly that I think we’ll really suffer if we do the big blowout he’s hoping for. I just don’t want to kill his Christmas spirit.”   
If you and your partner are likely to disagree on Christmas spending, it’s best to have these conversations before the season really kicks off, according to Alderson. 
Alderson recommends setting aside time for these discussions. “Try to be as objective and practical as possible. It can be a good idea to set a budget and decide who is responsible for buying certain gifts and who will be getting the food. Then you can avoid unexpected surprises or disagreements during times when you’re running on empty,” she adds.  
You can also try framing budget conversations in a more positive way. Campaign manager Courtney, 28, — who didn’t want us to use her last name — tells Refinery29 that she brought up Christmas budgeting to her “Christmas-obsessed partner” by posing it this way: “Rather than spending loads of money on presents this year, shall we skip present buying for each other and focus on experiences instead?” This, she said, helped to bring up the money conversation while reaffirming what Christmas is actually about (or should be about) simultaneously. 
As Alderson says, it’s completely normal for couples and families to have different opinions and perspectives when it comes to money, Christmas or any other time. These disagreements and disappointments don’t define our relationships, how we choose to deal with them do. Managing situations like this with respect and understanding can help prevent unnecessary sourness, but could even create less shame around money talk in the family and make room for better communication around finances in the future. 
*Names have been changed to protect the contributor’s identity.

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