'We Don't Flush The Toilet Every Time. We Use Candles To Light The Room'

These are the sacrifices parents are making to try to pay for Christmas.
Leah and daughter, Nolah
Action For Children
Leah and daughter, Nolah

Leah Callaghan, 39, and her partner Stewart Hart, 40, live in Shropshire with their two-year-old daughter, Nolah. Like millions of families across the UK, they are struggling to make ends meet this Christmas.

“We only put the heating on at night for the little one so she can have her bath,” explains Callaghan. “We don’t flush the toilet every time now, as I nearly had a heart attack when the water bill came last time. We use candles in the evening to light the room just to save on electricity, and luckily that also generates some heat.”

Callaghan works three and a half days a week as an HR Consultant in Wolverhampton while Hart is a full-time gas surveyor for a housing association. Between them they earn too much to qualify for Universal Credit, but do receive a monthly child benefit payment of £87.

In the kitchen, the couple now don’t use the oven or the hob. They rely on an air-fryer and a microwave which use less power. “We sold everything we didn’t really need and put the money towards the gas and electric,” Callaghan says.

“Our bill was £65 when we first moved in two years ago. Now it’s £180 a month and we all know it’s going to get worse. The council tax was £120 for a while and now it’s gone up to £160.”

This is the reality facing many parents this Christmas. New research from Action for Children uncovers the cost of living turmoil facing millions of working families.

To launch its annual Secret Santa campaign to help the country’s most vulnerable children, the charity commissioned a poll of 2,700 UK working parents and their children (nearly 5,500 in total), as well as a nationwide survey of its frontline staff.

The research shows the financial burden families are facing is taking an emotional toll on relationships, mental health and Christmas celebrations.

Three quarters (75%) of children in poverty are in working families, the charity said, with rates expected to worsen as the cost of living crisis continues.

One in five (20%) of working parents worry they won’t be able to afford any Christmas presents. Even though they’re concerned about money, more than two in five said they will put on a brave face and try to act happy.

Heartbreakingly, a quarter of children of working parents (26%) said they will offer to donate their gifts or pocket money to help their parents cover costs of the festive season.

Among the children and teenagers surveyed, over a third of those who’d seen their parents worry in the last six months had also seen their parents become upset or stressed in front of them due to money worries (37%). Just under a quarter (24%) experienced their parents losing their temper with them.

Many families say having a job is not enough to keep money worries at bay.

Callaghan and Hart have both been working since they were 16 and have never had to rely on any benefits, but since the summer their “reasonably comfortable” lives have been turned upside down by the spiralling cost of living.

“It’s so depressing. Not long ago we could go to a supermarket and not really think about if we could afford it or not,” she says.

“I mean, I nearly die now when I see the price of butter – even in the cheaper places. I sometimes lie awake at night just going through my banking app wondering how we are going to live off what we have with bill after bill coming in.

“We’re just chasing each pay day. It feels degrading and leaves you feeling, like, What’s the point?” I feel so bad because I would love Nolah to have so much more and for us to do so much more together.”

Callaghan says the couple wanted to have another child but that is now ‘impossible’. She says: “We just cannot afford it. The government maternity pay is useless and then would be the extra nursery fees. It just can’t be done.”

The stress of the situation has also affected both Callaghan and Hart’s mental health. “I was put on anti-depressants two years ago when I had a particularly traumatic birth and an emergency c-section. But my anxiety has got much worse with all our financial worries and the doctor has now doubled the size of my daily dose,” she says.

Her partner too is now on anti-depressants.” It’s just had such a massive impact on our mental health,” Callaghan adds.