CHRISTMAS is coming, ready or not. As soon as the Halloween decorations come down next week, we will be reminded to buy, buy, buy at every possible opportunity. The less money available, the bigger the chase -- will you be able to withstand the pressure?
A recent survey shows that 1.8 million adults have €100 or less left at the end of the month. A shocking 70pc of consumers are unable to save any money at all while 40pc have had to borrow money to pay bills in the last 12 months. If the pre-Budget leaks are to be believed, we can look forward to motor-tax rises, a cut in pensions tax relief, more excise duty on petrol, diesel and alcohol, the new property tax, which is expected to average €300 per home, an increase in PRSI and cuts in child benefit. So, back to the most wonderful time of the year...
The Irish are the highest Christmas spenders in Europe. Last year, we spent an estimated €943 per household. Reading through some message boards on the subject, I see that many parents say that they spend to try to recreate the magical Christmas memories that they had. But most parents with young children grew up in a recession. We didn't have piles of presents, lavish decorations, unrealistic expectations.
One big present and a few small ones, that was it. An Evel Knievel Stunt Set or a Fisher Price wind-up record player (ah, the pre-battery days), a few Famous Five books and a tube of Smarties.
Over the last 30 years, we have been sucked into a consumer culture that creates our needs, drives our desires and reframes our memories.
It sells us the idea of "personal gratification" -- if only you had this product, you, too, could feel this way. This capitalist consumer model depends on endless demand and growth but an economy cannot keep expanding if salaries are not growing at the same rate as demand.
That's where the cheap and easy credit came in. Which has now run dry.
So we have no money, we can't access any debt but we still want to buy stuff. It's time for a rethink.
When my husband was about eight, Santa brought him a Big Trak -- a programmable tank. The story goes that when he saw it, he cried and his mum had to explain to his brother that sometimes people cry when they are very, very happy. Last year, our eight-year-old son got a Big Trak as a present at his birthday party. It was one of about 20 presents. He thought it was kind of cool and played with it a few times.
Kids have so much stuff these days that the marginal utility or gain to them of a single toy is very small. So this year, we are going to try an experiment. At the start of December, we will clear out the playroom and leave only a few toys per child. Then Santa will bring one big toy and a few small items each. The hypothesis is that the new presents will get more play per toy. We'll see.
So we won't have to cancel Christmas for the kids. But what about the rest of the family? This is where things get tricky. During the bubble years, the notion of a "going rate" developed.
This going rate had no relationship with affordability; it was just what people said you were supposed to spend. It got to the stage where many people were struggling because everyone else in their family was also trying to keep up appearances. At this point, somebody has to say stop.
Every family should have someone like my sister. She says what's on her mind and doesn't worry too much about "what people might think".
She is the reason that we now have a €20 lucky dip Kris Kindle for extended family at Christmas. No more traipsing around shops, spending money we can't really afford on presents people don't really want -- thanks sis. The only challenge now is finding a unique and interesting gift for €20 that can also be carried in hand luggage (she lives in the UK). This is kind of fun.
There are nine weeks to go to Christmas. If you want to recreate the magic of Christmas past, don't bother shelling out €943 -- just get the kids a few toys, organise a family Kris Kindle and spend a few quid on a slap-up meal. Then afterwards, you can play Trivial Pursuit and fall asleep during Only Fools and Horses. That's what I'll be doing.