Families across Scotland are settling down this weekend to enjoy Christmas. For many it will be a challenge, as they struggle on a lower income than they would like – and that means the temptations are there to spend more than they can afford.
Some will have done so already, spending what it takes to have a good Christmas rather than what they can afford. Others will perhaps have been more prudent.
Either way, it’s important to note that the dangers of over-spending don’t end on 25 December – because the immediate post-Christmas period can be just as difficult to manage, financially, as the pre-Christmas one.
From Boxing Day onwards, the sales are already tempting your credit card. Meanwhile, your household still needs to be fed, heated and entertained as they wait for New Year.
Then there’s the New Year itself, when everything’s back to ‘normal’. Except it’s not really that normal, as January can be one of the most difficult months for your wallet or purse.
For one thing, that’s when your Christmas spend will come back to haunt you, as the monthly credit card and loan statements come through the letterbox. They may be accompanied by this quarter’s fuel bills – which will probably be the highest of the year. The bills for this winter are likely to be the highest on record. And don’t forget, if your salary was in December, you’ll have to stretch it five or six weeks before the next one.
A YouGov poll this week suggested that one in three families will go into debt over the Christmas period – not just in the run-up to Christmas Day, but the whole period – including the ‘in-between’ week and New Year.
Sadly, we in the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) see the truth of this every year. Many of those who come to us with debt problems do so in January. And they often say they actually managed to budget quite well in the pre-Christmas period, but it was the days after the 25th that hurt.
We don’t enjoy depressing people now, it’s just that we see in CAB offices every day the human reality of debt, and how it can destroy peoples’ lives. If this warning helps just one person give that nightmare a miss, we want that. So take on board these tips, and have a happy, and debt-free Christmas.
1 Be realistic about what you can afford
Whether it’s last-minute Christmas shopping, or getting through the post-Christmas week, make sure you know how much you can afford, and keep on top of your spending.
2 If you can afford to pay in cash, do so.
Credit cards and pay-day loans might be convenient. But debt, bankruptcy and repossession are not! It’s easier to stay in control if you use cash. Don’t take out credit unless you have to.
3 If you must use credit, shop around for the best deal…
Be wary about Buy now, pay later offers. Are you sure you’ll have the money? Remember – late-payment penalties can be huge.
4 And always read the small print of any credit agreement closely.
If anything is unclear, ASK before you sign. Then get advice from someone independent.
5 In the sales, beware of store cards.
They’re often a more expensive form of credit than credit cards, many charging interest rates of around 30 per cent
6 Don’t run up a bank overdraft without talking first to your bank
This will be much more expensive than if an agreed overdraft.
7 Remember the New Year utility bills.
HIgher-than-usual gas and electricity bills often arrive in January-February, just when you’re feeling the pinch. Allow for this in your budgeting.
8 When it does comes to paying those bills, prioritise
Mortgage-rent, gas-electricity and council tax come first.
9 Have you maximised your income?
If you’re a lone parent, on a low income, unemployed, or a pensioner, there may be benefits available to you that you are not claiming. Ask your local CAB.
10 If you do think you’ve overspent, get help!
Don’t ignore the problem or hope it will go away. It won’t! Your local CAB can help you manage your debt. But you need to seek that help as soon as you know you have a problem.
We’d like to wish all our clients, staff and volunteers, and all Scotsman readers, a happy Christmas, and a debt-free 2013.
• Susan McPhee is head of policy at Citizens Advice Scotland.