Christmas on a benefits budget 

Written by Victoria Bartle - originally published 13th December 2021


Christmas can be a very stressful time for those of us relying on benefits to support ourselves. Lots of people with disabilities have to utilise the benefits system, due to being unable to work enough to be financially independent. Alongside the general guilt surrounding claiming benefits, having to make changes to spending habits, which will be noticed by friends and family, can make you feel like even more of a burden and a failure. 

I hope that sharing my personal experiences of the changes that I have had to make to my spending habits around Christmas, will give you a better insight into what some of those in your care may be experiencing at this time of year. Armed with this knowledge, you will be able to offer advice, support and understanding of a difficult, and often not discussed, situation.

My experiences

I used to work in Welfare to Work and was earning a really good salary. However, in 2015, due to my health conditions, I had to step down from a management role and work part-time in admin. As my health got progressively worse, I had to continue reducing my hours until I stopped work altogether in 2016. 

Applying for benefits was an extremely stressful process that continues to this day, but along with managing my health conditions, coming to terms with not being able to work and negotiating the benefits process, I also had to take into account my reduced income and how to manage on it.

Since I paid off all of my debts from University, I have been really good with money. I keep track of how much is coming in and going out, and will make savings wherever I can, but when you drop 50% of your income, it is a bit of a shock. Christmas still happens each year and I still want to join in the celebrations and spoil the important people in my life - I had to make adjustments.

Presents are not the only thing to consider, you also have to factor in socialising, cards, postage, decorations, extra food, entertaining…the list goes on and on and becomes very stressful.

I am pretty lucky in that I live by myself; I do not have my own kids to buy for or are under pressure to create “the best Christmas ever”. I did not want to let people down or not be as generous or involved as I usually was at this time of the year, but I simply could not afford to behave in the same way as I have done previously.


I have a huge family. I am the oldest of 5 siblings, have 11 nieces and nephews, 2 godchildren and most of my friends have kids, all for whom I buy presents. This immediately became a financial challenge. Consequently, my family and I discussed Christmas expenses, and decided to only buy for the kids, meaning there was no need to get presents for my brothers, sisters, and their partners anymore. Phew! I gave myself a budget for each child, decided to get token presents for my parents and explained to my friends that I could not afford to buy for everyone, now that my circumstances have changed, which took a few more off my list. 

Once I decided who I was still buying for and how much I was able to spend on each person, I started buying gifts straight away. I still do that now. I will buy gifts throughout the year and put them away for Christmas and birthdays, which is brilliant for budgeting and getting through December and July (everyone I know was born in July), without panicking that I will have to eat beans on toast for the entire month. I even have a spreadsheet to mark off who I have bought for, which means that every month I can check the birthdays coming up and see if I have already got presents for them. This ensures that I am not overwhelmed in November and December, trying to remember whose presents I have not yet purchased.

Cards and decorations

For a few years, when I was really struggling with my health, I did not send any Christmas cards. This saved me money on postage and cards, as well as time, pain, and energy levels. Instead, I texted the people I would normally send a card to, explaining that I was not up to it this year, but wished them all the best. This worked fine and as I could copy and paste the message and send a few a day; it did not cause as much pain as writing out all of the cards.

Also, I did not put up any decorations in my house until last year. I did not see the point in decorating for myself. My cat used to knock over the Christmas tree every day and I really did not have the energy to sort that out. As a result of this, I did not have a tree or decorations for 5 years, and instead I only put up the cards that I received. 

When I finally did put up decorations for the first time, last Christmas, I already had some stored from previous years, meaning that I did not need to spend any money (I did have to get a new TV which I knocked over while putting up the tree, which was an unforeseen accident). Unfortunately, it did cost me a lot in terms of energy i.e., putting them up and then away again.

I have never done any outdoor decorations and I will not be doing them in the future. I do not have the time, energy, money, or inclination to buy outdoor lights and decorations, put them up, remember to switch them on and off (extra electricity costs) and then take them down again. The extent of my external decoration is a wreath that I bought last year to hang on the front door, and that wreath is going to last me for many years to come!

I used to colour-coordinate all of my wrapping paper and gift tags with a different theme each year, but that also stopped when I stopped working. The first year after leaving work, I used up all of the old wrapping paper that I already had, and then I started to buy the cheaper, longer roles in B&M or similar bargain shops. I also found a helper (my friend Charlotte) who loves wrapping presents and still comes over to help me wrap each year, saving me the increased pain and fatigue that such a big job would entail. I could do a few each day and spread it out, but she likes to help. 


This is a tricky one and a bit harder to explain to people, specifically explaining that you are unable to see one group of friends, because you have made plans with another group that week, and you have neither the energy nor the money to do both. I had to decide which invitations to accept, which were the cheapest and easiest for me to manage around my conditions, and pace out the activities over the month, ensuring I was not completely wiped out by Christmas Day.

I always drive, as I prefer having my car with me, it has my array of walking aids, and I can park as close to the venue as I need, to limit the walking I have to do, but this also saves money on drinking and taxis. I tend to have one night out when I drink, but only if I can afford the extra cost involved. My friends all understand this and do not mind if I drink or not, as long as I come along. One benefit of my being part of the group, is that some venues will give you a free carer ticket, so if we are going to The Stand for a comedy night, the cinema for a Christmas film or the theatre for a panto, I will get a free ticket for someone to assist me, and we can all split the discount. 


Since my sister had her children, she hosts Christmas Day, which is brilliant for me as I do not have to buy all of the food, cook it and then tidy up. But I do like to contribute something, as otherwise it feels unfair for her to have all of the expense and stress of hosting for me, our parents and her in-laws. 

Since she started hosting, I have taken responsibility for the desserts. I know that I am going to do it each year, so I can make sure I set aside enough in my food shopping budget for the four different desserts that we always have: Christmas pudding, trifle, chocolate log and a milk-free dessert for her youngest. Some years, I have also brought over the table crackers and drinks, as I want to contribute, to show my appreciation, as I would not be able to host an entire family myself, due to costs and low energy. 

However, if I did have to host, I would get everyone to bring something, for instance my parents do Christmas potatoes and carrots (secret family recipes). We tend to have the leftovers at Mum’s house on Boxing Day, thus nothing is wasted. While I would love to host Boxing Day this year, I would have to do some food shopping maths before I commit to the idea, as it would be very expensive! 

One of my friendship groups always has a Christmas celebration buffet between Christmas and New Year, which I have never hosted. After 10 years, I feel as though it should be my turn soon, which could become my hosting expense for this particular year. This would in turn mean that the family hosting experience would need to be moved into the next year. 

All the other extras

Having snacks in for visitors, a Christmas Day outfit, a Christmas jumper, some new PJs for Christmas Eve, and a takeaway - we all have traditions that soon add up in cost. But I have managed to minimise these a little. While I always get myself some new PJs, I avoid getting a takeaway on Christmas Eve, whilst making sure that I still have a nice meal to treat myself. I also have a selection of Christmas jumpers and t-shirts, that I will wear to every Christmas social occasion that does not need to be formal, reducing the need for new outfit purchases. 

Top Tips for Christmas on a benefits budget

Carers play a hugely important role in the lives of those that they work with and support, and even more so around special occasions like Christmas. Here are some ideas that you could recommend to those in your care, if they are worrying about finances at this time of the year:

  • Speak to friends and family honestly and discuss present budgets, suggest doing secret Santa or prioritise gifting presents to those closest to you.
  • Make presents and cards if you are able to, and if it works out cheaper.
  • Start shopping in the New Year sales and buy a couple of things each month, keeping track of what you have purchased, to save you some stress and huge expenses in December.
  • Re-use whatever you can: cards, wrapping paper, decorations and Christmas outfits. These will all do for many years, so do not throw out any leftover bits and pieces.
  • Take turns with friends and family to host celebrations if you can, or suggest everyone contributes something to save one person all of the expense.
  • Use disability discounts for nights out.

Sharing festive ideas, money saving advice and making this time of year special will be of great benefit to the people that you care for. You could even suggest that you build in some time during your visits to help with shopping for and wrapping presents, writing cards, food shopping, planning meals, budgeting and decorating their homes. I would also advise on allocating some time after Christmas to take down the decorations, store things that can be reused and even start making budgeting plans for next Christmas. This could help keep costs down, and also reduce any anxiety around the festive season.


Overall, please remind those in your care to have a wonderful time. Christmas is about spending time with friends and family, and not about the presents or the expense. I much prefer a handmade card or gift, as it is thoughtful, so remind them to not feel guilty if they simply cannot afford to “keep up with the Joneses” over Christmas. The people who love them will completely understand and just want to spend time with them.

Happy holidays!


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Victoria Bartle is an expert by experience. A blogger and advocate, Victoria lives with multiple health conditions and receives support from friends, family and paid assistants. Her blog on is a great way to gain insight into the views of a service user and consider care from different perspectives and is written with the insight Victoria has gained in her time working as an advisor and team manager in welfare to work. You can find out more about Victoria, her experiences and her other qualifications in her introductory post.