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When you think of Christmas, what does it bring to mind? Presents? Food & drink? Decorations? Parties? However you plan to spend Christmas, all these things have one thing in common: they cost money!

The festive season can easily add up to be the most expensive time of the year. But what exactly are people's attitudes to their finances this Christmas? What will we spend the most money on? How much do we think is a reasonable amount to spend?

Here at thinkmoney, we wanted to find out the answers to these questions and others. With the help of Opinion Matters, we carried out a survey* looking at people's approach to their festive finances - and here are some of the results we found.

What Christmas costs are people most concerned about?

We asked people exactly what costs they're most concerned about in the run-up to Christmas. As might be expected, two thirds of respondents (64%) are mainly worried about the cost of buying presents and socialising.

However, more than a third of people - that's 17 million - are concerned about the increased cost of fuel, perhaps as a result of travelling to visit friends and family. Almost 15 million people (30%) are worried about the extra cost of food over the Christmas period, which is hardly surprising, given that it tends to be the 'season of indulgence'.

Having said that, the 'stress factor' of Christmas spending doesn't appear to be equally shared between the sexes. Women (71%) are more likely to be concerned about the cost of presents than men (54%). It appears that women (34%) are also more likely to be worried about the cost of their festive food shopping than men (24%).

Yet for older people, it seems other winter-related costs are of bigger concern. 38% of people aged 55+ are concerned about fuel costs over Christmas, while 'just' 54% of them say they're worried about the cost of presents and socialising.

What are the biggest Christmas expenses?

Christmas is traditionally the time for giving presents and filling yuletide stockings full of gifts. So it's no huge surprise that Christmas presents are the biggest cost for 33 million people (67%).

4 million people in the UK (9%) will spend the most money on food, while for 1.5 million (3%), drink will set them back the most. Interestingly, almost 1% of respondents said that buying the Christmas tree and decorations is their largest festive outgoing!

Men are likely to spend more money on the turkey, the trimmings and other Christmas food than women (10% compared with 8%), but women are likely to splash more cash on Christmas presents (71% compared with 61%).

Looking at differences across the UK, it seems people who live in and around Sheffield are likely (82%) to spend the most on Christmas gifts, compared with 55% of Glaswegians.

What are people's attitudes to spending over Christmas?

Even though the current climate is forcing many people to keep a tighter rein on their finances, the survey found that 4 million adults in the UK (8%) will spend what they want over the festive period and worry about the impact afterwards.

Furthermore, 7 million (14%) feel obliged to spend at least a minimum amount on gifts - even if this stretches their budget beyond what they can afford. And it seems the financial pressure of Christmas is really getting to people up and down the country, with 9 million (18%) feeling stressed about the impending costs.

However, attitudes to Christmas spending are very different among different age groups. It seems the older generation are more likely to take a cautious approach, with just 10% of those aged 55+ feeling obliged to spend a minimum amount on gifts - compared with over a quarter (26%) of people aged between 16 and 24.

Regionally speaking, it looks like people in Sheffield (13.7%) are more likely to have a 'spend now, worry later' attitude to Christmas costs than residents of Southampton (1.2%).

Yet plenty of others take a very different attitude to their money over the festive period. 14 million people say they always budget properly, so the cost of Christmas doesn't affect them. 8 million people (17%) save throughout the year so they can have some additional Christmas spending money.

So, does Christmas have to cost too much?

As the results show, the festive season is no small financial matter. These figures really stand out:

  • 64% of people are mainly concerned about the cost of buying gifts/socialising
  • Christmas presents are the biggest cost for 32 million people
  • 6 million people feel obliged to spend a minimum amount on presents - even if it breaks their budget.

Does this mean the traditional view of Christmas - as a time for spending with family, rather than simply spending money - has changed? Is it now a more materialistic celebration, where it's the price tag, rather than the thought, that really counts? Our older relatives might tell us of a time when a great Christmas stocking meant a tangerine, some nuts and a colouring book, whereas now we're more likely to expect iPads and other expensive gifts under the tree.

More importantly - in terms of our financial wellbeing - are we spending more than we can afford? After all, it's not the overall cost that matters: it's how well that cost fits into our household budget.

So while 8% say they'll spend what they want and worry about it later, it's heartening to see 43% of respondents saying they always live within their means - and 17% saying they save up for Christmas specifically, helping them have the Christmas they want without running up debts or storing up problems for the New Year.

We may get carried away with treats and spending, but it looks like millions of us are determined to look beyond the present and give ourselves something that really is priceless: a New Year with healthy finances.

*Research conducted by Opinion Matters between 24th and 31st October 2012. Sample: 1478 UK adults. Numbers based on a UK 18+ adult population of 49.122m (ONS Census, mid-2010 population estimate).

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