Get on your bike! Beat the budget with Sinead Ryan's Christmas countdown
You can bet that Santa's best helpers have made their lists and checked them twice, so here we draw up a plan so you too can keep the cost - and stress levels - as low as possible
It almost seems like a jinx to mention the 'C' word so early in the year, and while the general rule isn't to bring it up until the month begins with a 'D', the only exception is where we're talking about making the whole shebang cheaper and easier. And in order to do that, you need to plan now.
For the next four issues we'll be taking you through the process step-by-step - starting this week with a Christmas countdown. We'll look at gifts to buy, food and drink and even getting a head start on the sales.
It might be the case that we're not even at Hallowe'en yet, but you cannot have failed to notice the stores ramping up stock with cheery red and white colours, making space in the shops for festive gift boxes and generally nudging shoppers vehemently towards December 25, whether they like it or not.
With just over two months to go, it's possible that the only thing you can get your head around to thinking right now is the cost of it all - don't despair. Even a small bit of planning can make the next nine weeks more bearable and perhaps… shhh! even a bit of fun!
The last thing you want is to get into a panic late in the day over food, drink, parties, gifts or, worst of all, money. Once you're swept away by jingling bells and Santa hats it'll be too late to be objective, and your wallet will take the hit.
The satisfied (oh all right then, smug) feeling you'll get from saying, "Actually I have that all done," will be worth the short term pain of making plans... starting TODAY!
Lists: Now is the time to start making lists - or even a list about lists! You'll know what things get you down when Christmas comes along and where you begin to lose control. Avoid that happening by making several lists under different headings - keep them in a notebook in your bag, or on a Memo App on your phone. They might include:
Gifts: Write down everyone you have to buy a gift for and as you think of things they might like, you can pop it in as you go. I find this invaluable every year. You'll even remember people you 'forgot' and can add them at this early stage. You'll be surprised when you're out and about how even having this in the back of your mind will alert you when you come across an interesting book, toy or bargain toiletries that you can match up with your gift list.
Events: Your work 'do' is probably already booked, and a date picked. Write it in your diary. There will be others, some clashing, and you won't get stressed if you keep a list of what's happening when. Whether it's drinks with the girls, lunch with a favourite aunt, a family get together or the kids' annual visit to Santa - keep them all in one place. It also means you can say "No" quickly and easily if you've something else on.
Delegating: If you're the one who normally does everything, start a list now to delegate tasks. Martyrs are the tiredest people on Christmas Day. If you don't want to do lunch this year, now is the time to put that out there. If you always have people over on New Year's Eve, then start planning who and what.
Food and drink: Now that you have your list of what you're hosting over the season, it's time to consider what food and drink you need to get, especially the out-of-the-ordinary items which you may not remember when you're in the supermarket, and certainly not in the Christmas Eve rush.
We all do a big grocery shop once a week. Starting now, add one luxury, non-perishable item to it, such as a bottle of whiskey, box of chocolates or a stocking filler gift. That way, you will spread out the cost and have lots bought before the big day.
Use Loyalty cards: Don't spend points as you get them, but hold onto them for your Christmas shop. You'll save at the checkout by hanging onto coupons and money off discounts sent out between now and then. Just check the date so they don't expire. The best loyalty scheme around is Boots Advantage card - you get 4 points for every Euro spent and they often have 3-for-2 offers. Make the third (free) item a stocking filler for someone - the same price as your second cheapest item. It's a no-brainer.
Organise Kris Kindle: It's by far the easiest way of saving money and stress at Christmas. Whether it's family, a group of friends or work colleagues (or hopefully all three), suggest a spend limit and draw names from a hat. Everyone gets one 'decent' gift, rather than a bundle of rubbish they don't want. You save money, and all that time running around the shops. For extended families, buy for god-children only, or pick two kids each so that each one gets two good gifts from aunt, uncle or cousin. Goodness knows they get enough from Santa!
STart Internet shopping now: You're allowing plenty of time for delivery before the Christmas rush. You'll also have time to return goods if they're not right. Your consumer rights are much stronger in online shops than street ones: you can return any item (as long as it's not perishable or personalised) within 14 days of receipt for any reason on any EU website and get a full refund.
cake time: If you are making them, you will need to plan your Christmas cake and pudding. Although many cooks make these months in advance, now is still a perfect time. Stores are stocking dried fruit, flour, sugars and all that you need in one prominent aisle, so you can shop for it all today. Involve the kids. They'll love adding coins to the plum pudding, or getting a 'lucky' stir of the cake mix. Include them in the decoration also - buy ready roll icing (remember we agreed not to be a martyr in Week Nine!), and let them all add to the decorations with coloured sweets, silver balls, action figures or icing shapes. Now is not the time to go all Mary Berry… Christmas is supposed to be tacky.
Get Together: Agree with friends or family members to buy items you're all going to need together, and bulk buy if possible. Whether it's wrapping paper, cards, bottles of booze, wine, beer or boxes of biscuits, you can often get better value by buying in bulk in one place.
Supermarkets or wholesalers might have 2-for-1 deals or 'buy two get one free' which on your own, you might not use, but together can divvy out amongst you. Christmas stock is useless to shops after the event, so if sales aren't going well in one quarter, there will be specials abounding. Operate a 'shopping buddy' text alert among the group to yay or nay purchases as you spot them.
Ask people what they'd like as a gift. Most of us dread getting bathsalts (again) or other items we'd never buy for ourselves. Asking what people would like to receive makes your job easier and you'll be thanked. If you're tight for money, offer gifts of time or talent instead: a few hours' gardening or baby-sitting, or making up classy home-made truffles with lots of cellophane will go down well.
Start Clearing out the freezer: Over Christmas you'll be cooking and storing food you don't normally use. Starting a freezer clear out now (by eating what's there, or making up 'eclectic' dinners using all the one-portion frozen foods) makes sure that by the start of December, you have clear shelves and storage areas to put in pre-made party food, like canapes, rice, casseroles and other items you can whip out at a moment's notice when unexpected guests call. Clean the whole lot out, even those bread rolls at the back and the bits of summer fruits stuck down the side. Chuck what's clearly out of date, or has crystallised, and marvel at your clean freezer… before starting to fill it up again. This time, designate a shelf or drawer specifically for each food group: tasty instant meals, canapes, dough/bread/pizza bases, veg or raw meat. You'll be able to find stuff in an instant, even in a packed freezer.
make a meal of it: Order your turkey and ham. Specify weight and tell your butcher when you'll collect it.
Timber time: Collect your tree if you haven't already and remember local charities and fund raising groups are always in the market. Check out the local Scouts, church hall or GAA clubs which sell trees every year. Alternatively, have a day out and chop down your own in one of the many Coillte forests which support the initiative. Most of them will net them for you and put them in your car safely. Take down your decorations from the attic and start sorting those lights first!
write it down: Write and send Christmas cards this week. E-cards are just fine however, and no forests die.
That's a wrap: Wrap all your gifts this week. Have sticker name tags rather than fiddly ones with string which can come loose in all the excitement. Check off your remaining lists. Has everyone got a gift? What food is outstanding? Make your final grocery list for perishables. Keep it stuck to your fridge so you can add to it as you go without trying to remember.
token gifts: Dig out all your tokens and discount coupons and attach them to the list.
That's a wrap: If you're making freezer food, now's the time. Casseroles, stews, curries, portions of cooked rice, flans and meringues all freeze beautifully.
Last-minute bits: Collect your meat and do your final grocery shop as early as possible. If you have a frozen turkey it needs a minimum 24 hours to thaw for each 4-5 lbs in the fridge. That's four to five days for a 16-20lb bird. You can speed it up by wrapping it tight and putting in cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes. That'll take 10 hours for the same size.
the final countdown: Locate all the luxury items (drink, chocs, biccies) you bought last month from where you hid them and lay everything out so you know what you're missing. Buy extra plastic bags, cling film, tin foil, cocktail sticks, ice, cleaning items, paper plates etc as you'll use far more in the next couple of weeks than usual.
Relax: Finally … Pour a drink and put your feet up. Admire your crossed-off lists. You've earned it.