This year has been, on the whole, one of the most difficult and testing years of my life to date. I entered 2013 knowing that it was going to be hard, but I had no idea just how spectacularly different my life would be at the end of it.
This year has been one of great change and loss. I managed to rack up over 400 points on the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale. Not all of this has been bad, some stressful parts of the year actually resulted in something wonderful - I married the love of my life in September and it was one of the most incredible experiences. I finally got out of the job that was killing me inside and got a job in writing. It's not the best job in the world, but it's a start - a step in the right direction, for sure.
The main problem with this new job, this biggest change of all, is the change in my financial circumstances. My salary is now £10,000 a year less than it was at the beginning of the year, and I'm struggling. My pay is now weekly, not monthly, so for two weeks of the month I am completely broke where all my bills and debts go out at the same time. I have been ticking over, getting by, up until December hit me... and that means Christmas.
For the past few years, I have always had my shopping completed by the 2nd of December. I bought a third of my presents in November with October's paycheck, and then purchased the bulk of them on November payday. I always have a budget all figured out, sometimes I didn't know what to get the person, but I always just work towards whatever monetary limit I've set for them. Sometimes I would go over if I found something really spiffy.
My usual Christmas expense is thus: I'd quite happily spend between £250 - 350 on Christmas presents for my husband, family and friends. (Husband buys his family and friends' presents). I usually try to have some extra bits of food and drink in the house in case of unexpected visitors, £50 worth usually. Last year I even hosted Christmas dinner at our place, and spent a further £150 on extra food and alcohol for the cupboards. I also invariably end up buying a few new decorations, which on average costs me about £20. I spent between £10-15 on cards and giftwrap. Then there's the Christmas work socialising, with a main Christmas do, a Christmas lunch and a Secret Santa. That normally all costs me £60-70, plus the inevitable new party outfit for the holiday season, which is usually £30-40 or so. In total, Christmas usually costs me, on average, anywhere between £400 - 650. Now I've written that down, I am shocked at how quickly all those little elements add up and I'm wondering where on earth all that money came from?!
This year, my budget was... £100 for presents.
£20 for our work Christmas do.
£5 for cards and giftwrap.
And that's it. In my previous life, after my astronomical rent, my train fare, cost of weekly groceries and all my bills and debts came out, I used to have about £300-400 to play about with. Now, I don't have any extra. At all. My wages cover my rent, bills and debts (just about), a bit of food and my bus fare to work when the weather is bad. I know I am lucky to have that, that there are people out there in worse positions in me, I see them every day: people without jobs, people without homes, people without families, people without health. But the change in my financial situation, and my life, has been truly humbling.
I was a student for years, so I'm no stranger to living on a tiny amount of money. I've never been rich - my salary before wasn't even what most people would consider to be good. But for me, this pay cut has never stung so much as at Christmas time. I love Christmas, I love buying people presents, I love making my house look festive and having people round for food and drink. I love spoiling people when I can, and I love celebrating this sparkly time of year. When you have no money, however, it loses a bit of its lustre.
I feel guilty for only having one small present for my husband this year instead of the collection I normally bestow upon him, for having spent so little on the presents I've bought, even more so for the people I couldn't afford to buy gifts for. I feel like I've failed at life somehow, to end up in this position.
But, amidst that feeling, there has been a journey of personal discovery. Christmas really is not about the amount of money you spend on someone. The present is not about the monetary value at all, but the reason why you chose that thing for that particular person. And you know something? There are just as many people out there right now saying "well, duh!" as there are saying "yeah, right!" For all the people who believe that handmade gifts are best, that Christmas is too commercial, there are people who remain in the mindset that is enforced on every television screen and in every magazine - 'size matters'. Substitute size for whatever you will; value, quantity, physical size. The message is still the same. But I say, no more.
When you have only a small amount of money to spend on someone, you have to look a damn sight harder to find a good gift. I say that because you know, every bit has to count. When you have a large budget, there are lots of generic gifts you can buy, you can even hedge your bets and buy several in a 'multi-buy deal' and choose the recipients later. This year, however, I had to really look for a gift and try really hard to get something that the person would like, without going over my meager budget. It was difficult, but every gift under that tree is a thoughtful one, carefully picked with love, and I hope that when my family opens them, they will see that.
Even more so, I hope those who receive handmade gifts from me will not judge me too harshly or think I am cheap. They were made with love, which is a currency I have plenty of. And love is what Christmas is all about, isn't it?
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