The True Cost of a Great British Christmas

How much do you spend on your loved ones at Christmas? Read our survey to find out who splurges on presents, food and decorations and who watches the pennies. We also look at how Brits finance their festive spending and whether more of us want an environmentally-friendly Christmas.

John Ellmore Last updated on 22 March 2022.
The True Cost of a Great British Christmas

We paint a picture of Britain's approach to Christmas, looking at how attitudes and actions vary between demographic groups. Our data is drawn from different ages, genders, households and regions to uncover the true cost of a Great British Christmas.

Read on to discover the true cost of a Great British Christmas for families, individuals and our planet.

The nation’s Christmas spending habits

Do we ever pause to reflect on the real impact that our Christmas spending is having on our finances?

Many of us lose sight of the big picture by spending money on credit, sometimes without the means or a solid financial plan of how to repay what’s been borrowed. However, it is pleasing to see that our data clearly shows that the majority of Brits use money from their current account to pay for Christmas costs.

As 2019 moves to a close, let’s put the Brits’ Christmas 2018 spending habits under the microscope. What lessons have we learnt?

Sean MacNicol, engagement manager at Money Dashboard, says: “In the lead-up to Christmas, it’s important to ensure you have included what you plan to spend in your budget so that you know exactly what you can afford and don’t get tempted by expensive items you don’t need. Start by making a list of all the things you need now to avoid having to fit everything into your budget for December and even snap up special offers in the lead-up.

Environmental impact

Although it is becoming a significant and growing area of concern, the environmental impact Christmas has on the planet is still relatively underreported.

Through our survey findings and data analysis, we’ve uncovered some surprising attitudes regarding the environmental toll of the Great British Christmas:

  • More than a third (34.1%) of Brits do not worry about the impact their Christmas is having on the environment.
  • Nearly a quarter (23.5%) of Brits always consider environmental impact at Christmas time.
  • More than one in 10 (12.2%) of Brits do worry about this issue, but not enough to make any changes.
  • Encouragingly, 30.3% of Brits plan to make a conscious effort to reduce their impact on the environment this Christmas (2019).

Emi Murphy, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth, says: “Christmas is a busy time for many, and it can get even more intense when it comes to thinking about resource use and emissions. It’s easier than you might initially think to have a planet-friendly Christmas, though. By making slightly different choices around your tree, food and gifts you can cut down on the impact your festivities have.”

Survey results at a glance

We encourage readers to jump to whichever demographic group is of most interest:

Age – the Christmas generation gap

Spending habits

Our survey results confirm and deny many preconceptions around the Christmas spending generation gap. While some of the findings could be considered common sense, there are figures which show some more unexpected results.

The 25-34 and 35-44 age groups, the second and third youngest demographic groups surveyed, have the highest spending Christmas habits in the nation.

This is predictable as these two groups are the most likely to have young, growing families, and tend to celebrate Christmas wholeheartedly. From the bar chart visualisation below, you can see that those aged 25-34 spent on average £862.14, whereas the 35-44 age range spent slightly less at £850.10.

An interesting result from our survey is that 18- to 24-year-olds are the highest spenders when it comes to buying new Christmas decorations.

This is surprising when you consider that our survey also confirmed that the two youngest generations, Gen Z and Millennials, are more environmentally conscious than their older counterparts. A major reason for this apparent conflict in interest could be that the youngest generation are likely to be buying their first Christmas decorations, after moving away from home.

Key findings on borrowing money

  • Of the number of people who paid for Christmas using their credit cards, 57.9% were men and 42.1% were women.
  • Of the number of people who borrowed from friends and family to help pay for Christmas, 61.5% were men and 38.5% were women.
  • Men (55.7%) are more likely than women (44.3%) to take out loans to pay for Christmas.
  • Two-thirds of Brits (65.5%) used funds from their current account to fund Christmas 2018.
  • Some 38.6% of people used their savings to pay for Christmas.
  • Almost one-fifth (19.7%) of people used credit cards to fund their Christmas.
  • Only 5.3% of Brits used loans to fund their Christmas.
  • Just 2.6% of respondents borrowed from friends or family to fund Christmas.
  • Half of Brits (50.3%) anticipate they will spend the same total amount of money in Christmas 2019, and that their spending habits will remain the same as the year before.

Cost of Christmas: by Age

Environmental attitudes

There is a clear generation gap when it comes to the attitudes across generations regarding the environmental consequences of Christmas spending.

  • Almost three-quarters (74%) of 18- to 24-year-olds either always consider the environment at Christmas, or plan to make a conscious effort to reduce their impact on the environment this Christmas (2019).
  • Some 16% of those aged 55-plus always consider the environmental impact at Christmas time.
  • More than half (57.6%) of those aged 55-plus either don’t care at all or aren’t willing to make any changes.

As we saw above, even though they are the most likely to consider their environmental impact at Christmas, the youngest generations spend the most on new decorations as well as wrapping paper:

  • Those aged 25 to 34 spent more than any other age group on wrapping paper (£26.13).
  • Some 16.2% of 18- to 24-year-olds and 17.7% of 25- to 34-year-olds buy or make gift wrap from recycled materials.
  • Just 10.6% of 55- to 64-year-olds buy or make recycled gift wrap.

The Christmas Gender Gap

Spending habits

In good news for Brits’ Christmas spending power, two-thirds of survey respondents (65.5%) used money from their current account to pay for Christmas.

However, the survey highlighted an interesting point that, last Christmas, more men used their credit cards and borrowed money from family and friends than women. Making this finding even more significant is the fact that men also spend more than women at Christmas.

The only area where women spend more than men is on presents. Female respondents spent on average £403.91 on gifts last year, while men spent £391.62.

Among the questions, respondents were also asked about future spending and how they plan on financing Christmas 2019. While there were no significant changes overall, the results revealed that more men plan to take out loans to help pay for Christmas than women:

  • The number of men who plan to take out loans in 2019 increased from 55.7% to 63.6%, while the number of women decreased from 44.3% to 36.4%.
  • The number of men who plan to use their credit cards in 2019 increased from 57.9% to 59%, while the number of women decreased from 42.1% to 41.0%.

Adding to this, a higher number of men are planning to spend more on Christmas 2019, while women are hoping to spend less. Of the number of people who are planning on spending more on Christmas 2019, 59.6% were men while 40.4% were women. And of the number of people who are planning on spending less on Christmas 2019, 44.6% were men while 55.4% were women.

Cost of Christmas: by Gender

So, where do men and women differ most in their Christmas spending? In total men spend more money at Christmas, despite spending less on average than women on presents. Men, however, spend more on all other categories of Christmas spending:

Men vs Women

  • food and drink (£186.96 vs £154.55)
  • new decorations (£163.50 vs £95.98
  • cards (£25.43 vs £16.46)
  • wrapping paper (£19.83 vs £11.59)

These results raise a number of questions, are women better at budgeting than men? Are men more comfortable with acquiring debt than women? Do men hold the purse strings in more British households?

Environmental attitudes

Our survey shows that men may care less about their environmental footprint at Christmas than women, as men spend more money than women on decorations, cards and wrapping paper and these items aren’t always recyclable.

However, what we don’t know is the extent to which men recycle these items. If men fully recycle the higher quantity of decorations they buy, this could offset the waste they create.

Recycling charity, Recycle Now has a complete list of which Christmas decorations are recyclable.

Household

Single, married, divorced, who spends more?

In this section we will analyse what the various households of Britain spend on Christmas across the broad spectrum of relationship statuses and household income.

Unsurprisingly, there is a direct link between household size and the cost of Christmas. Again, expectedly married couples and those co-habiting spend the most in the festive season.

Divorced individuals spend the least on everything except food and drink where they spend the second least, £127.12. Those who are separated spend the least on food and drink, £116.96.

Despite the direct correlation between the number of children and the amount of money spent at Christmas, families with three or four children spend more money than those with five. This could be linked to household disposable income levels.

Our survey found that the amount spent on Christmas matches the household’s income, in that the higher a household’s income, the more money they spend at Christmas.

Households earning less than £10,000 spend around £500, while those earning an income in excess of £100,000 spend just under £2,000. There is an anomaly, however, as households with an income between £90,000 and £100,000 spend less than households with a combined income of £80,000 to £90,000.

Even though the higher the household income the more money they tend to spend at Christmas, there is an interesting point to be made about the proportion of income spent. For instance, households earning an income of less than £10,000 spend 5% of their income at Christmas while those with an income of over £100,000 spend just 2%.

This is an important consideration for those who worry about their Christmas budget. When you calculate your Christmas spending as a percentage of your total income, it’s possible you’ll discover you spend more than you realised.

Cost of Christmas: by Income

Environmental attitudes

There appears to be some correlation between the number of children in a household and the household’s attitude to their Christmas environmental impact. Households with five children consider their environmental impact more than families with fewer children.

Key findings by types of household

  • Those who are married or in a domestic partnership spend the most on Christmas; those who are divorced spend the least.
  • Unsurprisingly there’s a direct correlation between the number of children and money spent at Christmas.
  • Those with no children spend the least on everything.

Region

UK under the microscope

It’s no shock that Londoners spend the most at Christmas, as the capital has the highest concentration of high-income individuals in the UK. Londoners, on average, spend £1,000 per year on Christmas. The lowest spending region is the East Midlands, where people spend just over £600 per Christmas, though they are closely followed by the South East and the South West.

Cost of Christmas: by Region

Neighbouring regions the North East and North West spend very similar amounts at Christmas. The North East spends more in total, £712.13, compared to the North West, £686.93. However, the North West spends more on presents and only £2 per household less on food and drink.

Northern Ireland and Wales have strikingly similar Christmas spending levels, at £751 and £729 respectively. Northern Ireland spends more in total than Wales, yet Wales spends more on new decorations – £111 vs £81.

Key regional findings

  • London spends the most at Christmas.
  • The East Midlands spends the least.
  • Yorkshire, East of England & the South West’s spending levels are separated by £3.17.

Does where we live influence our views on green issues?

It might follow that people living in more rural areas would have a more environmentally conscious view on Christmas consumerism, but the reality is somewhat different.

People living in the urban sprawl of our capital appear to have the most eco-friendly Christmas spending habits, with 69.5% of Londoners either always considering the environmental impact at Christmas time or planning to make a conscious effort to reduce their impact in Christmas 2019. This is despite London having the most extravagant Christmas lights in the country – the Oxford and Regent Street displays – which use a huge amount of energy.

We found that 69.5% of Londoners either always consider the environmental impact at Christmas time, or plan on making a conscious effort to reduce their environmental impact this Christmas (2019).

People living in the East Midlands were the least likely to agree with the statement that they consider the impact of their Christmas on the environment, as 42.1% said they don’t worry about this issue.

The only other region which comes close to this figure is Yorkshire, with 41.2% of the Northern region saying they aren’t concerned with their carbon footprint.

Christmas budgeting

Some of the nation’s spending habits may shock you, prompting you to re-examine some of your Christmas spending habits. If you discover you’ve been spending more than you realised or have been financing your Christmas spending with debt you may want to consider Christmas budgeting.

At its most effective, Christmas budgeting should be practised as soon as possible. This will allow you to get your finances in order and start saving towards your Christmas budget throughout the year.

Whatever your budget, to save efficiently, it’s a good idea to put money away each month. Putting this money in a separate bank account away from your current account or savings account, means you won’t risk confusing funds or feeling the temptation to spend the money you’ve been saving on impulse purchases.

Jamie Smith-Thompson, managing director of financial adviser Portafina, explains: “When it comes to managing money, budgeting apps are a must in the lead-up to Christmas, as well as during the festive period. Using a budgeting app will give you complete visibility of your money and puts you in control of your spending.

“The first step to using an app is to divide your money into pots. At this time of year, I would suggest separating your disposable income into pots such as Christmas food, Christmas presents, and a party fund. Deciding up front how much you plan to spend on each pot will reduce your stress and help you stay out of the red.”

An overreliance on debt

Brits appear to have an overreliance on debt when it comes to financing the economic cost of Christmas. Our survey revealed that 38.6% of Brits used their savings to pay for Christmas, while 19.7% relied on credit cards to buy the things they wanted for Christmas.

This second statistic is especially worrying considering our Psychology of Debt investigation uncovered the fact that 32% of individuals in debt have no clear plan of how to repay their debt. As a nation, we need to talk about debt; our spending habits at Christmas only serve to reinforce this position.

This article, backed up by our survey findings and research, confirms that, although many consumers spend within their means at Christmas, a significant proportion use their savings or various means of borrowing to fund their celebrations. This is a potential point of concern for men in particular, as they were shown to not only spend more at Christmas but also take out more credit to pay for it.

The cost of Christmas soon adds up, and people may be surprised at how much they actually spend during the festive season. However, this is not the only cost to consider, as the consumerism of Christmas can affect the environment as well as your bank balance. Our research shows this is a growing area of concern, especially for the younger generations, but more can be done to reduce the impact of Christmas on both the environment and our finances.

James Yelland, communications and marketing manager at The Money Charity, advises: "Get planning, with a robust and well thought-through budget. To do that, you need to be honest with yourself, calculate your likely income and expenditure, consider good and bad eventualities (maybe you get a bonus, or the boiler packs in), then see how it all balances.

“It’s never too early to get started on this, for this year, or even next. Know your limits – in line with your priorities and what you have to play with, decide your limits and stick to them. That could mean agreeing not to have gifts with certain people, doing a Secret Santa, or setting maximum spending limits.”

Disclaimer:

The market research was carried out among a sample of 2,000 UK-based adults in September 2019. The research was commissioned by NerdWallet through independent market research agency 3GEM Research & Insights.

3GEM Research & Insights employs members who are accredited with both the Market Research Society (MRS) and the European Society for Opinion and Marketing Research (ESOMAR). The firm works to the highest industry standards and complies with all necessary regulations throughout the different phases of the research process.

The data sample of 2,000 UK adults is fully nationally representative. This means the sample is weighted by Office for National Statistics (ONS) criteria so that the gender, age, social grade, region and city of the respondents corresponds to the UK population as a whole. 100% of the survey respondents celebrate Christmas.

Third-party data provided is based on information that is publicly available at the time of writing. NerdWallet does not accept, for any reason, responsibility for the content on third-party sites.

Image source: Getty Images

About the author:

John Ellmore is a director of NerdWallet UK and is a company spokesperson for consumer finance issues. John is committed to providing clear, accurate and transparent financial information. Read more

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