Donald O’Meara describes the stress from ongoing debt as seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, except it moved further away every time he moved towards it.
But this year, Donald and his wife, Trudy, are looking forward to the festive season in Auckland thanks to some careful planning – which started in mid-2021.
The couple have been working with the financial mentors at Tamaki Budgeting for the past few years to help gain control of their personal finances.
The service usually runs a 12-week MoneyMates programme to help people plan for Christmas (but it was unable to go ahead this year because of the COVID-19 restrictions).
The programme focuses on different aspects of Christmas from food planning, hosting visitors and creating memories and teaches whānau to plan for things like school uniforms following the festive season.
The O’Meara’s started their personal finance journey when they were so stretched, they were living on bread and rice.
After working with their financial mentor – who has renegotiated some of their debt payments to a manageable amount – they’re able to reach realistic savings targets, plan for upcoming expenses and have managed to take two coastal cruises around Napier.
“It was really hard to walk through the door and start,” says Donald. “It’s given us the confidence to catch the light and pass it.”
And they’re not skimping on the Christmas presents either. The couple started planning in June this year.
They’ve put a set amount away each pay for presents and are clear about who they’re buying for and how much to spend.
Donald says they’re now much more aware of how they’re spending their money, and how to make it go further – like doing a cupboard stocktake before grocery shopping and looking at ways to use less electricity.
He says a lot of planning and ensuring you have a budget will help make Christmas less stressful for many.
“I’m feeling very, very confident in being able to handle Christmas,” he says.
Tamaki Budgeting manager Alyson de Marco says there is often a weariness in the lead up to Christmas for whānau facing hardship.
“Planning holidays, catering for visitors keeping children occupied will be especially hard after such a prolonged shut-down,” she says.
“For many, there is a shut down over Christmas for their work and the fear that they will not reopen in the new year. More time together is sometimes the catalyst for family violence brought on by drinking, drugs and frustrations.”
Alyson says there is also a pressure to give hospitality. Sometimes this is way out of the family budget and loans, overdrafts, and credit cards are maxed to keep up.
For many over-crowded households, extra visitors become an enormous pressure.
The financial mentors at Tamaki Budgeting and their MoneyMates programmes are a great way to help whānau alleviate some of this pressure by planning and looking at ways to cut costs.
“It’s all things that don’t cost a lot of money, but people can do them and create wonderful Christmas memories,” says Alyson.
They also focus on looking at what community support may be available. Last year, they dropped of Christmas tress (funded by local businesses) to those in need – one gentleman with grandchildren cried at the gesture.
While they can’t go all out this year, Alyson says they’re planning on donating Christmas trees again, but the team at Tamaki Budgeting will be making goodies – like gingerbread – for the decorations.
“We’ve been very sad to miss this this year. I absolutely believe in Christmas, and I think it’s very important for people to have things to look forward to,” she says. “Christmas is a big deal for us.”
Alyson expects there to be less support for the community this year with the COVID-19 restrictions, like the annual City Mission Christmas Dinner.
Nationally, MoneyTalks helpline team lead Angela Smart says it’s easy to get caught up in the atmosphere of Christmas and spend money based on emotions.
Anybody can contact MoneyTalks for free, confidential support and if people need more personalised help, they can put you in touch with your local financial mentoring service – like Tamaki Budgeting.
Angela says setting a spending limit can help you stay on track and, if you can, it could be a good time to look at putting money back into your community by buying experiences and vouchers for local venues.
“It’s never too late to start a budget – at the end of the day if you start your budget on the first of December or the twenty-fourth, you’ve still started,” says Ange.
The helpline will be closed between Christmas and New Year, but they are expecting more calls in January as people prepare to get the kids back to school and the credit card statements start coming in.
Sorted personal finance expert Tom Hartmann says the festive season can become a “spending frenzy” with Christmas, summer holidays and the start of the school year.
“There’s a lot of pressure and people react to that pressure in different ways. Christmas takes a lot of work to make special, but of course what we’re making is wonderful memories – it’s hard to detach the memory making from all the buying.”
Tom says people should be focusing on get the most value out of their Christmas spend and not on the amount of stuff.
In previous years, Sorted has seen whānau use buy now pay later services and credit cards to help fund this time of year then getting hit with penalties or interest when they can’t meet the repayments.
While buying presents for little ones is a trap many whānau fall into over Christmas, he says focusing on gifts the children may need like togs or books may help reduce and add value the spend.
Tom suggests people plan ahead for the season and see where they can create other Christmas traditions which aren’t linked to gift giving – like a morning walk on the beach.
“It’s really about making memories.”
Top tips for Christmas
- Have a plan and save for it – lists are the best thing yet
- Set a limit on gifts and create magic with that or DIY
- Create games to keep children happy and make them feel good
- Focus on memories and not “stuff”