Christmas without trimmings

Cutting back on festive costs doesn't mean missing out on Christmas cheer

Katherine Chua is joined by her children Naomi and Karlsson Tan as she serves a meal of roasted chicken, potato gratin and shrimp fried rice. ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

SINGAPORE - Ten-year-old Naomi Tan and her 12-year-old brother, Karlsson, are not getting Christmas presents this year. And they are fine with it.

Their mother, Ms Katherine Chua, was retrenched in July and started her current job as a secretary in a manufacturing firm last month.

"With Covid-19, you learn to better appreciate what you have. Now is not the right time to be a spendthrift," says the 46-year-old, who is married to a postman. They have three older children aged 16, 22 and 25.

The children usually get one or two festive gifts. During their annual Christmas gathering with 15 other relatives, each family member gets a present through a lucky draw. Ms Chua buys the children a second present if there is "extra bonus" that year.

But due to social distancing restrictions, the Christmas gathering this year has been cancelled. Besides no presents and no party, there will also be no Christmas tree and the festive feast will be a scaled-down affair.

While Ms Chua will still be making roast chicken and potato gratin, there will be no roast beef or satay, which her relatives normally bring as potluck offerings.

Instead of putting up a Christmas tree - their plastic tree was worn from use and discarded last Christmas - Ms Chua has bought decorative sprigs to adorn the doors in their Housing Board flat and set the Yuletide mood.

Amid a "corona-recession", many families are cutting back on festive trimmings as they reflect on a year dominated by Covid-19.

Surprisingly, the youngsters are taking the budget cuts in their stride.

Naomi says: "It's okay, we don't want to get Covid-19. Our gathering will be shifted to next year so we'll have double the presents."

Karlsson is looking forward to seeing a snow display at Jewel Changi Airport instead.

Ms Chua attributes her two younger children's pragmatic sensibility to their freelance stints acting in advertisements over the past two years, where they earned a couple of hundred dollars each time.

She let them spend $20 on toys and steered them towards spending the rest on "more meaningful" items like books, or saving it.

"It enforced the idea that making money is not easy," she says.

Ms Abigail Chuah, manager at Hope Centre (Singapore), which provides community services for children, young people and seniors, is opting for cheaper gifts this Christmas because of the precarious climate wrought by the pandemic.

"Working in a charitable organisation, I'm aware there are a lot of needs, especially among lowly skilled workers who are out of a job. Covid-19 made me realise how vulnerable our lives are and how unpredictable. I want to spend prudently to help those in need," says Ms Chuah, 37, who is married to a 34-year-old coding instructor. The couple have a one-year-old daughter.

She and her husband typically buy 100 gifts every Christmas for friends and family. She will be giving fewer presents this year, as large celebrations are not allowed. Instead, she is baking cookies to give away and plans on donating more to charity.

Ms Abigail Chuah with her husband Edison Zhuang. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

For others, careful Christmas spending is part of a longstanding habit of financial prudence.

Mr Nic Tse, 31, finance editor at financial comparison website SingSaver, says: "I always keep an eye out for ways to cut back on spending, Covid-19 or not. As I had my personal system in place, I didn't have to make last-ditch attempts to cut down on Christmas spending."

He usually spends Christmas Eve at a staycation with his girlfriend at a luxury hotel, which can cost up to $600. In August, when few were thinking about mistletoe, he snagged a deal for 40 per cent off for his upcoming festive stay.

For Institute of Technical Education lecturer Benjamin Kwek and his wife, cost-cutting means making their own Christmas tree with their three daughters, aged seven, nine and 12.

Following a Christmas practice since 2017, the Kweks make use of recycled materials such as bamboo poles, cable ties, string, grid wire mesh, masking tape and ice-cream sticks. Their 1.5m-tall homemade tree even has table-leg socks at the bottom to prevent the poles, usually used for hanging clothes, from scratching the floor.

Lecturer Benjamin Kwek, his wife, finance manager Corinne Kwek-Foo, and their three daughters make their own Christmas tree as part of cost-cutting measures. PHOTO: COURTESY OF BENJAMIN KWEK

The garlands that make up the "branches", lights and ornaments were bought on 50 per cent discount from the Japan Home store.

Mr Kwek, 43, says: "Christmas is always a big thing for us, as we're Christians. Since I started working from home, I've been taking the time to enjoy being with my kids.

"Making our own Christmas tree is a way to do something fun together. Besides, getting the kids involved stops them from being glued to the TV, laptop, YouTube and K-pop."

Seven tips for a budget Christmas

Here are seven tips on how to cut costs during Christmas, the season of excess.

1. Use cashback credit cards

Mr Henry Sewell, country manager of financial comparison platform SingSaver, says: "Utilise your cashback cards wherever possible to get cash rebates on your purchases and remember to pay in full when your bill arrives."

2. Research big-ticket purchases

Mr Sewell says: "It can be tempting to splurge on big-ticket items during the festive season.

"Before taking the plunge, seek out reviews, check prices online, use price trackers and compare extensively across websites."

3. Wait for discounts and sales

"If shopping online, wait for discounts or free shipping," says Ms Ng Hau Yee, director of Junior Achievement (JA) Singapore.

The non-profit, a member of the century-old JA Worldwide, equips children and young adults with skills in financial literacy, entrepreneurship and work readiness.

4. Have a Secret Santa for the family

Ms Ng says: "Instead of everyone buying gifts for everyone else, do a Secret Santa instead and set a monetary limit on your present. The picking of names can be done online as a pre-Christmas event too."

That way, everyone buys only one present each.

5. Do Christmas lunch or tea instead

Another way to cut costs, says Ms Ng, is to organise Christmas lunch or afternoon tea, instead of dinner, when the food may be more expensive.

6. Bond with kids with homemade gifts

Ms Ng suggests baking Christmas cookies; compiling a collage of photographs taken during the year; or making coasters by painting tiles.

7. Give experiential presents

Give in-kind presents. Ms Ng suggests gifting a "service", like a promise to wash the car or take the children out.

Up the ante by offering a "service" that relates to your profession, she suggests. Coaches can provide four free coaching sessions, for instance.

Families can also volunteer together, check out the Christmas lights in Orchard Road and other neighbourhoods or organise a Christmas movie night.

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