Christmas In the Cost of Living Crisis
As temperatures drop, turkeys are added to shopping lists, and letters to Santa are written, how are people coping during a winter of inflation and financial hardship? Sian Norris reports
Receive our Behind the Headlines email and we’ll post a free copy of Byline Times
“We have been buying presents throughout the year,” says George, describing how the family are getting ready for Christmas. “We start in January, picking up things in sales. We try to avoid the trend toys and go instead for presents with a solid foundation. We know who our kids are after all, and so we can predict the kinds of things they will like”.
George and Jean (not their real names) live in Devon with their two daughters, Sophie, and Emily who has autism. The pair are unable to work for health reasons, and like millions of families across the country, are at the sharp end of the ongoing cost of living crisis. “You notice it at the supermarket,” George tells Byline Times. “Two bags of shopping used to cost £10, now it’s more like £25”.
As we go into Christmas, one in five people are living in poverty – of those, 4.3 million are children. With temperatures dropping to below zero as schools break up for the festive holidays, more than half of UK families are set to enter fuel poverty, or when more than 10% of income is spent on energy costs.
“We are putting the heating on in excess of what we usually do, although we have been keeping the thermostat down,” mum Jean explains. “There’s a lot of blankets, and asking the girls to put on an extra jumper”.
FEARLESS, INDEPENDENT JOURNALISM & INCREDIBLE VALUE
Receive the monthly Byline Times newspaper and support quality, investigative reporting.
The Christmas holidays have always been an expensive time for families. But for families on low incomes, the pressure is even greater. With children at home, the heating needs to be turned on higher and for longer – although George jokes that two extra bodies around means the house is a bit warmer. Until recently families received no support for the extra meals that need cooking when children aren’t being fed at school. This is all before the shopping list for stocking fillers and Christmas dinners start to add up.
Jean and George explain that they now receive free school meals vouchers during the holidays, thanks to campaigners such as the footballer Marcus Rashford. “That’s a relatively new thing,” says Jean. “It’s always a nice surprise when they arrive”.
The family are also grateful for local initiatives – a grassroots charity supporting parents of neurodivergent children has provided vouchers for a community cafe, and they enjoy day trips to the local museum which is free for all. “We haven’t gone to a food bank yet,” says George. “Right now, we can manage although we would be entitled to that help. But so long as we are okay, I’d rather that support went to someone who really needed it”.
The charity Action for Children has also supported families with essentials, including providing Sophie with a laptop so she can do her homework.
“There have been times when something has come up that would have been nice to do, but we can’t afford it,” says George. “When that happens, our daughter Sophie has offered to pay with her pocket money. The grandparents help out with that, so we don’t have to budget for it”.
Making Christmas Magical
Jean and George are determined to make the festive season magical for their two daughters. Every morning the girls get a visit from an elf who leaves messages around the house, and George even created a short film showing their visitor arrive through a fairy door.
“The values we are teaching them both is that it’s not about having stuff,” George explains. “So it doesn’t matter if someone has a bigger house or has so many books. It’s about who you are as a person that counts”.
But there is no doubt that the pressures of the cost of living crisis are being felt. “When I was working, I used to have a decent wage and you could save for things,” says Jean. ‘When you’re on benefits, there is no extra to put into savings and that’s frustrating. Having that safety net there is really important”.
One in four people in the UK have no savings, with increasing numbers of households turning to credit cards and short-term loans to make ends meet during the cost of living crisis. Families in the Midlands were least likely to have savings, while those in the South East enjoy greater security.
Both George and Jean feel that the cost of living crisis has changed people’s attitudes towards those on benefits. They told Byline Times that with more and more people needing state support, and more and more people receiving government help, some of the stigma surrounding benefits seems to have lifted.
“Maybe it’s because I was on the outside of it back then, but when I was a child, there was a lot of stigma about having free school meals, or families needing help to buy school uniforms,” says Jean. “Whereas now it seems much more common, and it feels more accepted that everyone is facing different problems”.
“The rhetoric designed to divide people when it comes to claiming benefits doesn’t work when everyone is feeling the pinch,” says George. “Now, when people hear it, they go – hold on, you’re talking about me, or my friend”.
Action for Children are inviting people to send a Secret Santa present to low-income families. Find out more on their website.