Spending traps and saving tips for Christmas shoppers - Sarah Coles

Like any family, we have a ridiculous number of traditions around Christmas that make absolutely no sense to anyone else.

For us that includes firing the starting pistol on Christmas preparations on the second weekend in November. I usually spend the weekend writing long lists of lovely things I’m going to make and buy, and feeling smug about how enormously organised I am. But this year is different, because it’s starting to feel like I’ve left it really late. It turns out that everyone else has been cracking on with Christmas for weeks.

The Office for National Statistics asked people about Christmas shopping in the last week of October and discovered that 12 per cent of people had already bought something for Christmas that they’d normally get later in the year. Almost half of them (47 per cent) had picked up some festive food, 44 per cent had bought toys and 33 per cent clothes or accessories.

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The main reason we’re getting stuck in early is because we’re worried that shortages will leave us feeding cheese sandwiches to our crying present-less children on Christmas day.

Sarah Coles is a Senior Personal Finance Analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown

While over the years we’ve learned to take Christmas shortage warnings with a pinch of salt, this year there’s every chance we’ll miss out. The same ONS survey asked people whether they’d faced any shortages in the previous fortnight, and 43 per cent of people said they did. When it came to food shopping, 65 per cent said they’d seen some differences, and 17 per cent said they’d been unable to buy something essential.

It means that more people are buying early. Iceland said at the end of October that frozen party food sales had tripled and sales of frozen turkeys were up 400 per cent. The research company Kantar, meanwhile, said that in October, 4.7 million households bought mince pies.

In terms of Christmas presents, the Toy Retailer’s Association has warned that if you’re after something specific, you’ll need to get it while you can, and that if you think you’ll be able to pop into the shops in December as usual, you could be in for a nasty surprise.

Problems started with manufacturing, especially for items containing any kinds of electronics, because of the computer chip shortage caused by the pandemic. Covid also meant ships and shipping containers got stuck in the wrong place around the world for months, so supply chains are all over the place.

Even once items are in the UK, driver shortages mean containers are stacking up at ports rather than hitting the road. Normally they’d be whisked away in a few days, whereas now it’s taking weeks. Not only does this mean shortages on the shelves, but also that ships are being diverted away from UK ports because of a lack of space. Normally retailers sell out and restock throughout the festive shopping period. This year, the restocking part of the process is likely to be far less efficient than normal.

There’s no need to panic. There will be plenty of alternative items on the shelves, but if you have a family member with very specific present requirements, you’ll need to get cracking.

Given that there are so many people shopping earlier this year, it’s worth highlighting how to use this as an opportunity to save money rather than spend more. There are five traps to steer clear of:

1. Falling foul of Black Friday

This is just around the corner, on November 26, so bang in the middle of this year’s Christmas shopping season. The easiest way to get ripped off on the day is to wait to see what comes up, and buy things you like the look of. You won’t know constitutes a good price for the item, so you can’t sensibly judge the deal. Retailers also tend to put higher end versions in the sale, so the electric toothbrush you snap up at 50 per cent off could cost more than the standard one at full price. You need to be specific about exactly what you want, and what spec you need, then shop around before the day. You can check historic prices on Amazon products on CamelCamelCamel, or in other stores on PriceSpy. That way you’ll have a rough idea of what a good deal looks like.

2. Buying before the sales, and not checking back afterwards

If a store offers price matching, check the time limit. The most famous example is John Lewis, which will price match up to 28 days after you buy something. It means that if it’s reduced in the sales within 28 days, you can request a price match. Other specialist retailers are offering this specifically around Black Friday, so make sure you check what’s on offer.

3. Finishing your shopping early, and then hitting the shops for fun

You can guarantee if you agree to meet up at Christmas Market, you’ll end up spending a small fortune on the kinds of little extras that nobody needs

4. Eating all your early purchases

If you know you’re not the sort of family that can leave a tin of chocolates unopened in a cupboard for a month, don’t make the mistake of thinking you can make an exception this Christmas. Even if you buy them when they’re discounted, if you buy a tin, eat them in November, and then need to buy another, you’re not saving any money.

5. Putting yourself under pressure

All this talk about buying things quickly can put us under pressure, so we end up buying things we regret. For any big purchase, research historic prices before you start, then shop around for the best deal, and take your time. If you’re not trying to buy a must-have item that’s running low, you can put your shopping in a virtual basket and leave it for between an hour and 24 hours, before returning to check you still think it’s a good idea. It’s a really effective way to avoid impulse buys.

It’s difficult to fight the urge to make these mistakes with the threat of shortages hanging over our heads. But while it’s not going to spoil the day if we end up sacrificing the odd Christmas tradition and eating chicken or giving our relatives their second chocolates for Christmas, it could put a fairly hefty dampener on the festivities if we’ve spent more than we can afford panic buying things we didn’t need.

A report from the FCA this week found that the bank branch network shrank almost 5 per cent between April and June this year, with 267 branches closing. It leaves just 5,599 standing – 386 of which are in Yorkshire and The Humber.

Almost two in five of us now live more than 2km from a bank branch, and goodness knows how far from the bank where we actually hold our account. While the vast majority of us can still access cash without a charge without travelling more than 2km, there’s a real risk to those who are less mobile and need help from a human when getting hold of their money.

The Post Office offers an incredibly valuable alternative, taking the number of bricks and mortar places people can access banking services alongside a human in Yorkshire and The Humber to 800. However, for many people, these can also prove difficult to reach.

The FCA classes 2km as a reasonable distance to have to travel for cash, but many of the 5 million people who rely on cash are older and have mobility issues. If they don’t have access to transport, 2km may as well be 20km.

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