1 Set a limit on spending. You have to be rich to make a really grand anti-materialist gesture à la Nigella (Lawson). One year, she told her children that they could only keep one present: the rest were going to a local children’s hospital. An alternative is to declare a budget. I’ve warned my five children that there’s a £50 ceiling for their main present, though Santa may shove some bits and pieces into their stocking. So far they have taken the disappointment well: the budget is sufficient to get a Sainsbury’s cashmere cardigan (£35) or a Zara Basics belted jacket (£49.99). For discounted toys try www.thetoyshop.com, whose star buys section has an electric guitar reduced from £69.99 to £19.99, Baby Born dolls at £17.50, and Playmobil Pirate ships (£19.99). Under-a-tenner ideas include the following: www.cartoonme.com turns photos of your nearest and dearest into hand-drawn cartoons for £3; a Glana four-photo frame from Ikea is £9.99; cushions from TK Maxx cost £9.99; a four-pack of tulip wine glasses at M&S are currently reduced by 30 per cent, to £9.50.
2 Make your own presents. Christmas mornings this year will resound with cries of “Oh, how lovely”, as people swap apple chutney. My sister has already been hard at work with her copy of Pam Corbin’s Preserves (Bloomsbury, £12.99), making raspberry vinegar, pickled shallots and quince-paste membrillo. I’ll go for preserved lemons: easy, cheap and a nice colour on the shelf; I’ve already stocked up on cheap Kilner jars; www.waresofknutsford.co.uk and www.jbconline.co.uk sell them.
3 Let’s keep bookshops in business. If you want to buy someone a book, the answer is not always Amazon. Find the best price for it on www.find-book.co.uk. WH Smith is selling Jamie’s Ministry of Food for £10, while the Guinness Book of World Records is £9 at Asda.
4 Choose useful presents, but don’t go too far. Oxfam shops are stocking some relatively fun ideas that can’t be deemed useless luxuries, including a Hippo Water Saver for £1.99. Placed in your cistern, it will save roughly a third of the water flushed down the loo; if the recipient looks unconvinced when they unwrap it, tell them it’s an item much-loved by Cate Blanchett. The charity also sells notebooks with recycled bright plastic covers bearing a description of what they used to be – cup, box or bag – at just £2.49 a pop. They also have an ingenious wind-up torch (£19.99) which will never need new batteries – an ideal gift for credit-crunched dads.
5 When it comes to lunch, plan ahead. I wish I had. I’ve missed the boat for raising my own turkey in a plastic coop in the back garden: June or July is the time to install a pullet to give it time to fatten up. Having to kill, draw, hang and pluck the bird would be a downside, but if the financial belt has to be tightened still further, it may appeal next year.
6 Serving Christmas pudding to my children has always been a waste of money; this year I’m copying the chocolate version from Nigella’s Christmas (Chatto & Windus, £25) – essentially it’s a normal cake recipe, except that it’s made in a bowl, steamed for an hour and a half, and served draped with chocolate sauce. That will stop the children hiding the heavy fruit version under their spoons once they’ve got the sixpences (5p bits) out. It is also comparatively cheap to make.
7 Waste nothing. Another of the ideas from her Christmas Book (Dorling Kindersley, £16.99) is to pot up cuttings of your best plants. (B&Q sells 23cm terracotta pots for £1.) She decorates labels with glued-on seeds and leaves. Delia’s good at scrimping, too. In Frugal Food (Hodder & Stoughton, £17.99), she recommends using dry cider in place of wine to make coq au vin and boeuf bourguignon – everyone needs a break from turkey – and claims they have turned out “beautifully”. Alternatively, I freeze the dregs in wine bottles for cooking with another time.
8 Go on a booze cruise. Twice a year I head to Calais to stock up as duty on wine in France is 0.02p per bottle, as opposed to £1.46 in the UK. Majestic were the first to offer free Seafrance car ferry trips to customers – alternatively, they give cash back. See www.majesticinfrance.co.uk for details. Oddbins and Sainsbury’s offer similar deals. I went with a girlfriend; between us we spent just over £800 and got £96 back, which paid for the crossing and lunch at Le Channel near the port (four courses €21.50; 0033 32 13 44 230). Majestic’s best cheap blended plonk is Cuvée Richard (white and red) at £1.69. Five years ago, they mostly stocked beer and Liebfraumilch; the range now is much the same as in UK stores.
9 While in Calais, go to a hypermarket. There’s a choice: Auchan and Carrefour, as well as Sainsbury’s. Even with the dire euro exchange rate, there are some good buys: check online at www.auchancalais.com and www.carrefour-calais.com. I load up with cheeses, pâtés, olive oil, apricot jam, tomato concentrate, mustard, vinegar, coffee, madeleines, powdered hazelnuts (good for meringues), lardons, jambon cru fumé, circles of ready-rolled pastry (why can’t you buy them here?), oysters, fresh yeast and tins of Bonduelle peas. Recent best-buys were a giant (32cm) Le Creuset-style cast iron casserole for €55.45, a salmon-sized (60cm) fish kettle for €29.95, and six one-litre preserving jars for €10.92. NB: diesel is still cheaper in France but unleaded isn’t – and I wished I’d bought petrol before going to the supermarket because the Auchan pump gave me a €5-off voucher.
10 Talking of money-off vouchers, dedicated discount hunters can chase up the best deals by going to www.myvouchercodes.co.uk. Yesterday, they were showing 15 per cent off first orders over £25 from Littlewoods and 20 per cent off clothes from Asos.
11 The best gifts can be free. Famously thrifty pensioner Gay Cossins once asked each of her children for “just one hour of your time”. Each of them agreed to do a job for her , such as clearing out her food cupboard and helping her sort her wardrobe. A pledge to clean someone’s car would be similar gift. Get tickets for a favourite BBC show from www.bbc.co.uk/tickets (sadly, under-18s can’t go to Top Gear); ask for free samples when buying something from a cosmetics counter (they make great stocking fillers); or give away some of your treasures. I was thrilled when my sister gave me a dress she no longer wears.
12 Give presents that will provide hours of pleasure… How about “three-for-two” paperbacks this year? A more extravagant option that should ensure warm feelings all year is a subscription to a favourite magazine; cheap deals are available from www.discountpublications.co.uk (eg, National Geographic for a year for £29) or www.qualitymagazines.co.uk (eg, Harpers Bazaar for £24.99). A bottle of perfume lasts for ages, and you can get it cheap from www.fragrancedirect.co.uk or halfpriceperfumes.co.uk . Find discount make-up at www.feelunique.com.
13… or gifts that support a good cause. Chit Chat is a double CD of interviews conducted for a talking newspaper for the blind, with old favourites (living and dead) including Peter Ustinov, Yehudi Menuhin and Spike Milligan. All proceeds go to Fight for Sight Eye Research (£10 inc p&p from Wienerworld, 020 8206 1177, www.wienerworld.com ).
14 Don’t forget the jokes. The most memorable presents are often the cheap, silly ones like Smiffy’s extendable fork for pinching food from others’ plates (£4.50 from many joke shops, including www.the-joke-shop.com). Hawkin’s Bazaar (www.hawkin.com, 0844 5734000) has Gelli Baff (£4.99) which turns bath water into coloured goo (and then back into bath water). Another cheap bath joy is a glowing LED “glow in the duck” (£4.79) from crazyaboutgadgets.com; they also sell reindeer mugs with noses that light-up when you put a hot drink in them (£5.59).
15 Share the cost of Christmas by gathering as many members of the family together as you can. Each person can provide one element – the turkey, booze, puddings, etc. You could also set up a Secret Santa scheme. Each person buys a gift for one other person, chosen by ballot, spending to an agreed limit. Alternatively, make opening cheap treats more fun by putting them, wrapped, into a festively-decorated dustbin filled with shredded newspaper and turning present-giving into a Lucky Dip.
16 Wrapping is another money guzzler but there are alternatives to expensive sheets and ridiculously short rolls. Use up left-over bits of wallpaper – not only is it decorative, it doesn’t rip when children inspect what’s under the tree. Alternatively, you can get a 300m roll of brown paper from www.rajapack.co.uk for £19.59. I go to my local wholesale flower market for big florists’ packs of tissue paper but you can get 240 sheets for £6.99 from floristsuppliesuk.com. From the same source you can get 250 yards of thin curling ribbon for £0.75, and various kinds of fancy cellophane (from £10.56 for 120m). Add a touch of gold: a can of spray paint (£4.99 from www.londongraphics.co.uk) will jazz up everything from twigs and pine cones to walnuts and apples.
17 Cheap lights work out expensive: once one bulb goes the whole lot is useless. This year I’ve invested £69.99 in 10m (100 bulbs) of heavy-duty LED lights that won’t give up on me and are cheap to run (0845 370 0333, www.xmasdirect.co.uk). Make your home twinkle with 8-hour nightlights (£6.16 for 100 from www.klaremont.com).