Budgeting for the extra costs at Christmas

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Media captionKevin Peachey examines the cost of a trip to see Santa

For many families, the Christmas spending spree has started - with food and gifts top of the shopping list.

But experts warn it could be the festive frivolities that burn a hole in the wallet or purse amid the midwinter chill.

Becoming more prominent among these December extras is a trip to see Santa.

Parents up and down the country booked the most popular grottos and Christmas experiences months ago. Many sold out within a few days.

For example, tickets for Cardiff Castle's grotto were sold in record time. Seats on Tanfield Railway's "North Pole Express" were on sale from Boxing Day last year and are long gone.

Ruxley Manor Garden Centre in Kent saw its website struggle to cope with demand when grotto ticket sales started in August and slots at Santa's Magical Forest in Pomeroy, Northern Ireland were gone in four days.

Many shopping malls, garden centres and country homes still have time slots for youngsters - who have been good this year - to see a busy Father Christmas. Casting agencies have been flat out hiring from Lapland to keep up with demand.

All this is evidence of the increasingly lucrative business of grottos. But, therein, lies a danger for parents on a tight budget.

Image caption There have been various stories in recent years of parents disappointed by festive experiences

Prices for these experiences vary significantly and, as seen in the saga at The Magical Journey designed by Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen at the Belfry, near Sutton Coldfield, families might not always feel they get value for money.

Jasmine Birtles, founder of the financial website Moneymagpie, says that parents should be aware of some of the hidden costs involved.

For example, higher prices may be charged at weekends, compared with weekdays, and parents may also be charged a fee to go into the grotto with their children, sometimes having to pay more than the youngsters.

She also points out that some grottos charge extra for a photo or a present.

"It is a good idea for parents to have a look online beforehand to see what the deal is. But you can find grottos that are completely free and do give a present," she says.

Budgeting tips

It is not just a trip to see Father Christmas that stretches the festive budget. Travel costs are significant, with car hire often more expensive at this time of year, and cheaper rail tickets snapped up early.

Amid the stalls and rides at the Winter Festival at London's Southbank Centre, visitors say that food and drink usually take a big chunk of the Christmas budget, but hosting and buying presents are an opportunity to spoil loved ones.

Party paraphernalia and replacement decorations are also often forgotten when considering Christmas costs.

"Some people may be dreading the cost of Christmas. For many people, the end of November is the last time they will be paid before the festive period and, for some, it can be a struggle to make this money last," says Kevin Mountford, head of banking at price comparison website Moneysupermarket.

"Although we only have a month to go, there is still time to make a budget and stick to it, to avoid spending more than planned."

Andrew Coles, independent financial adviser for Beaufort Asset Management, also argues that it is vital to keep track of spending and the Christmas personal budget. His other festive spending tips include:

  • Check the terms and expiry dates of gift cards and vouchers
  • Use a credit card for extra protection for purchases of more than £100
  • Consider free web-based talk services, rather than paying to call friends and family overseas
  • Start to save early for Christmas 2015
  • Think twice about spending big on gifts

A snapshot by financial services provider ING suggests that people in the UK who were surveyed were expecting to spend more on Christmas presents than consumers in 11 other European countries.

As a proportion of income, UK respondents were third on the festive spending list behind those surveyed in Romania and the Czech Republic.

However, unlike the early planning required to book a slot to see Santa, shoppers are expected to leave it late when buying gifts.

Image caption James Miller says online shopping has changed the way we buy for Christmas

James Miller of Experian Marketing Services, which provides data analysis to businesses, says that - once the early bargains are gone - people are increasingly comfortable leaving their Christmas shopping later, owing to their trust in stores to deliver closer and closer to Christmas.

"Online shopping is an important leisure activity for a wide variety of people, from active middle-income families with teenage children to young singles with busy, social lifestyles. These tech-savvy groups are typically early adopters of new technology trends, prolific online shoppers, and active users of mobile and tablet devices," he says.

These shoppers now expect good delivery services from retailers. They also know that if they wait, or are too busy to buy early in December, they may see prices cut, he says.

Despite some chaotic scenes on Friday, he says the busiest shopping days are yet to come.

He predicts that the busiest shopping day in the UK will be the second Monday of December. Online on this day, there will be an estimated £676.5m spent during 151 million online visits. At its peak, there will be 470,000 online visits a minute to retail websites.

With all this spending, some parents going to see Santa with their youngsters may say that top of their wish list this year is a pay rise.

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