Festive fun on a tight budget

Celebrate in style without the financial hangover, writes Penny Pryor.

Celebrate in style without the financial hangover, writes Penny Pryor.

The Christmas countdown is on! With four weeks left till D-Day, you're probably starting to feel the stress. But there's no need for that. You can still get all your ducks (or turkeys) in a row in time.

One of the first things you need to work out is a budget and exactly how much you're going to spend, and on who and what. It's important to have a plan and a list for any kind of shopping to avoid impulsive spending or buying something that looks like a great idea in the store, only to get it home and remember you bought the exact same thing for the exact same relative last year. Rebecca Glenn, campaign director for MoneySmart Week says a budget is especially important at this time of year.

"Look at your budget and try to accommodate Christmas over four weeks," she says. "Really set yourself a limit if you are going to use the credit card, so you don't go beyond that [limit]."

Glenn started her Christmas shopping three weeks ago and has been trying to buy two presents a week so she doesn't have a big financial hit just before Christmas. It's not too late to start a similar strategy now.

"I'm a list lover so I would be sitting down with all of my sales catalogues - whether it's the grocery store's, department store's or speciality store's - and I would be making a list from all of those," she says.

When you then do hit the shops, you know exactly what you're after. You can also do a large chunk of your shopping online if you're pressed for time. So get out a pen and paper, work out a budget and prepare lists for everything from presents and food to cards and decorations. Then follow this simple four-week plan . . .

Four weeks out

The Aussie dollar might not be as strong as it was, but it is still cheaper to buy many goods overseas and online. And if you buy this week, you'll still have time to save with cheaper delivery. But take the time to do the research. Depending on the product, it could be cheaper and easier to buy at a local discount store.

The Book Depository in the UK, for example, which offers free delivery to Australia, lists December 5 as the last day by which to buy goods for a Christmas delivery. They don't guarantee that of course, so the sooner you get in the better.

As an example of a price comparison, The Book Depository offers Peppa Pig: The Tooth Fairy (paperback) for $10.61. That compares with $12.99 at Angus & Robertson online (which also offers Australia-wide free delivery) and $12.50 at Booktopia, which charges $6.50 for delivery per order. The recommended retail price of the book is $14.99.

If your gift list extends beyond books, don't forget Amazon in the US. It is selling Glee: The Complete Fourth Season DVD for $US29.99.

Its three delivery options are: standard international shipping (which averages between 18 to 32 days) for $US6.48, AmazonGlobal expedited shipping (which averages eight to 16 business days) for $US12.48, and AmazonGlobal priority shipping (which takes just two to three days) for $US25.48.

So if you were to buy today using AmazonGlobal expedited shipping it would cost $A46.85.

The DVD is a US and Canadian format and while it wouldn't play on your local DVD player, you can play it on your computer and get your tech-savvy friend or relative to show you how to hook that up to the TV.

But you could also buy it online at Big W for $48 plus $5 delivery or, possibly the cheapest option of all, is to go to your local JB Hi-Fi, where it's retailing for $46.98.

Don't forget other sites like asos.com for clothes, net-a-porter.com for designer labels and, of course, ebay.com.au for everything else.

Three weeks out

You don't have to be a hipster to make gifts and we're not talking macaroni necklaces. If you've got the time, you can make plenty of things that will impress the recipient. Here are some ideas that anyone could tackle, or you could try some of the projects that our case study, Sue Cowden, has on the go.

Make cards. If you order more than 100 you can get photo cards made for about 70¢ or 80¢. If you're craftier you can buy a pack of C6 25 blank cards at Office Works for $3 (envelopes are extra) and decorate them by hand. Get the kids involved, make potato stamps (an oldie but a goodie) and use paints and things lying around the house to keep costs down. Leaves and gumnuts make pretty decorations too.

Make gifts. You don't have to be as clever as Sue, or even have picked up a needle in your life, but there are some simple things you can learn how to do in a week (with two weeks left to finish them off). Felt is a really easy fabric to sew with and looks great. Search out YouTube for videos of how to make felt toys for kids. Lincraft sells 23x30 centimetre felt squares for $1.19 and stranded cotton for 59¢. For the blokes, if you don't want to sew, you can always check out what's going on at your local Men's Shed (mensshed.org).

Make decorations. If you don't have a Christmas tree you can always buy a live one, often cheaper than the plastic ones, or use a pot plant or find an interestingly shaped branch on a bushwalk. Shops like The Reject Shop generally have the basics, such as tinsel, pretty cheap, but you can make great decorations too. Try paper chains, origami stars, and bring out the felt again and cut out stars and bells. Don't worry if they're not perfect: one thing we can thank the hipsters for is making homemade stuff cool again.

Make jam or bake: This is a great present for all those Christmas events you can't go to empty-handed, or for gifts for colleagues. Jam can be tricky if you've never made it before but it's cheap. Do you have a kumquat tree, or a neighbour with one who won't notice the missing fruit? You need jam-setting sugar (the equivalent weight to the fruit), a lemon and a bit of cinnamon. Use old jars and sterilise them first with boiling water, then label them with the date.

They make a lovely present at under a dollar a jar. You can do the same with biscuits or even small Christmas cakes, and bundle them up in clear cellophane (buy it cheaper by the roll) with a ribbon.

As well, make sure you've bought all your non-perishables by now. If your freezer is big enough you can get a frozen turkey, or even frozen prawns (three kilograms of Australian frozen whole cooked tiger prawns retailing for $62.99 at Costco). Just don't forget to thaw them in time.

And in the spirit of charity, you can also suggest to your family circle that everyone donates a certain amount to their chosen charity in lieu of gifts, or perhaps organise a Kris Kringle among the adults.

Two weeks out

OK, so things are starting to get a little crazy now. But you've still got a few things left on your list and for some reason, unbeknown to you, Christmas is at your place this year. Time to check out the discount stores. Put aside an hour to compare prices online and go through the supermarket store catalogues before you head out. The table above can give you some comparisons to whet your appetite.

Check these prices before you shop, but we don't think they will change much in the next two weeks.

A nice thing that you could do at Christmas, which not only saves you money but can also help remind families of what Christmas is all about, is to volunteer to help out at your local charity's Christmas lunch.

Many of the large charities report that these events are often their busiest time of year for volunteers, but you could always try a local church or chapter of a charity if you start looking around now.

And if you still have a few pesky presents on your list to buy, head straight to your local Vinnies store, where if you hunt long enough you can probably get everyone's gifts for well under $100 in total. Remember it's not second-hand any more - it's vintage.

"For Christmas time it is a really great gift idea, because not only is it good value, not only are you helping people in the community, you can [also] get something really unique," Julie McDonald, general manager fund-raising and communication at Vinnies, says. "I have certainly bought presents there in the past."

These stores provide valuable income to the St Vincent de Paul Society and have annual turnover of more than $50 million. In the past financial year the shops accounted for 48 per cent of the group's total income to invest in services and programs.

You can check out some of the great Vinnies finds online at visitvinnies.org.au/vinnies-gallery/

One week out

So if you've followed our advice, with just one week left to go, you should be sitting down with a nice glass of Moet (cheapest at Costco for $44.89) after putting the finishing touches to your homemade gifts.

Merry cheap and cheerful Christmas to you and yours!

Watch John Collett and Penny Pryor discussing strategies for a cheap and cheerful Christmas at theage.com.au/money

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