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19 December 2022

Misery in the middle aisle: how Britain made budgeting a luxury this Christmas

The usual pressure to splurge this season is now disguised in the language of smart spending.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Have you bought all your Christmas presents yet? Or did you start buying them once a month over the year, like Denise van Outen’s pal Zoe in Channel 4’s Secrets of the Middle Aisle? And if so, have you wrapped them all? Or are you making your own wrapping paper using old washing-up sponges, brown paper and a glue gun, as demonstrated by Stacey Solomon in her BBC One Crafty Christmas show? And how about next year? Have you started saving for Christmas 2023 yet, as advised by the Park Christmas Savings advert (“the early bird gets the worm after all!”)?

As I’ve been balled up in front of the TV this winter – one eye on the smart meter, one hand stirring honey into a perpetual Lemsip – I’ve noticed a pattern in pre-Christmas programming and advertising. The message this year is how to budget to make sure you have a special festive season – all smart spending, superhuman planning and time-consuming creativity.

It’s not a new message. In Easter Aldi ran an advert with the tagline “Don’t change your lifestyle; change your supermarket!” It’s a perfect summation of the trend. You don’t have to compromise the magic of Christmas, we’re being told, just be savvier with your spending choices.

“There’s a narrative that it can still be perfect, and all you have to do is figure it out,” observed Grace Lordan, director of the inclusion initiative at the London School of Economics.

On the surface it sounds harmless. Amid the cost-of-living crisis, overt messages about indulging and splurging on luxury ranges wouldn’t go down as well with consumers or viewers. It has captured the online zeitgeist: “skintfluencers” like “Right Guys Reviews” on TikTok and other platforms tour stores to find genuine bargains and give followers tips on the savviest purchases.

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The big problem, however, is that budgeting in itself is a luxury. Those who are comfortably off are better placed to save money. This comes down to a phenomenon known as “time poverty”. Research shows that people on lower incomes are more time-poor, and therefore less able to buy gifts well in advance, shop around for deals and plan in general.

“For the longest time, we’ve known that middle-class families are the ones to gain the most from deals that are run in shops, and it’s not people at the bottom of the distribution,” said Lordan, who has studied time poverty.

Indeed, upmarket stores like Waitrose are losing out to the discounters Aldi and Lidl, according to data shared with the New Statesman by Kantar, a retail data firm.

Data by Nick Ferris

“When I go into a store and want to find good offers, I have the time to walk around and look,” said Lordan. “But if I’m somebody on a minimum wage job, I don’t have the time and luxury to go into the store and walk around and compare and contrast.”

This is because those on the lowest incomes – “your Uber drivers, restaurant servers, coffee shop workers, who are on minimum wage or even slightly above” – are more likely to work extended hours or a second job to make ends meet.

Sixteen per cent of workers surveyed by Royal London, the insurance company, in September said they had taken on an additional job to help pay for rises in living costs, 28 per cent of full-time employees worked over 48 hours a week, and a fifth over 56 hours.

“It’s just not possible for us to function as human beings with that level of work, particularly work that’s actually strenuous on the body – most of these jobs are quite physical,” said Lordan. “You have time poverty, and both emotional and physical tiredness.”

This means you don’t have time to seek out the best deals – for example, to keep revisiting the “middle aisle”, the tat utopia of one-off bargains in Aldi and Lidl. These stores begin stocking their middle aisles with Christmas items in September. As the products change twice a week, this instils a “fear of missing out” in customers early in the season. (Lidl’s middle aisle tagline is “When it’s gone, it’s gone”: a marketing trick to lock in repeat visitors.)

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“You don’t have the time to go around the supermarket [this often]. Even when you finally do get to go around the supermarket, your tiredness is going to make it much harder for you to make a good decision,” Lordan said.

[See also: Ping pong bars and tipsy shuffleboard: how pubs became playgrounds]

Our decision-making abilities are severely impacted by financial distress, according to research by the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, founded by the consumer rights champion Martin Lewis.

“We often talk about how mental health problems affect the way we feel, but we don’t often talk about how they affect the way our minds work,” said Helen Undy, chief executive of the institute. “It’s harder to process complex information, it’s harder to hold in your head how you’re going to balance what’s coming in and what’s going out if you’re in that kind of fog. It’s also harder to resist the call to spend. Impulse control is reduced when we’re exhausted and struggling with our mental health.”

This becomes a vicious cycle. Financial difficulties brought on by inflation can cause mental health problems, which in turn make it harder to make financially prudent decisions. In any case, spiralling prices may also mean no amount of careful planning can enable the kind of celebrations promised by adverts or cosy TV shows about shopping tips.

National Debtline data shows that 45 per cent of clients now have a “deficit budget”, which means they do not have enough coming in to cover essentials. In other words, however much they cut back, it won’t be enough to save money for festivities because their income doesn’t stretch to energy, food and basic bills.

“If the sums don’t add up and you just don’t have enough money coming in, you’re not going to be able to afford the Christmas from the adverts – and telling people otherwise can just make us feel much worse,” said Undy. “Being told that the reason you can’t afford to give the Christmas you want to this year is because you didn’t budget well enough, and if only you’d budgeted better maybe your kids would be having more this Christmas, is a really toxic message.”

Poverty is expensive. The irony of this is clear to see in other facets of the cost-of-living crisis.

People on pre-payment meters pay 6 per cent more for energy than those who can afford to pay by direct debit, for example. Households with savings gain from rising interest rates. Even batch-cooking is harder if you’re poorer, because it requires time, higher upfront costs and freezer space. As a community kitchen manager in Ashfield told me earlier this year, “you can produce healthy meals cheaply but it’s not in the capacity of every family, and not easy to replicate in every household. It presupposes you’re buying in bulk, cooking with big catering trays and have the storage.”

One also needs to have hope for the future. As the budget recipe writer and food poverty campaigner Jack Monroe wrote in 2020: “Why would you batch cook when you’re suicidal? I know I certainly didn’t.”

The idea of saving Christmas with individual nous alone is simply the same-old seasonal call to spend, rebranded. “The narrative given by big companies should be that Christmas will be different, and that’s okay,” said Lordan. “Not that it will be perfect.”

[See also: What if inflation falls in the wrong way?]