CHRISTMAS can place an inordinate amount of stress on a tightly managed household budget.

A change in circumstances, a reduction in working hours or unexpected emergency can throw precarious finances into crisis. Some families have been found to take three years to pay back their Christmas spending.

Here are a few tips to help manage your Christmas spending;

n Set an upper limit on gifts for adults. Then everyone has to use their imagination and think of creative gifts to give. Use a Secret Santa where everyone picks a person to buy for, or a bran tub where each person chooses a gift from the tub, all ways to reduce financial pressure.

n Give children experiences rather than gifts. Maybe commit to one special present, but also give the gift of your time and company. Children often treasure those experiences, especially if parents are usually busy working or doing chores. A day at the beach, the park, a nature trail, time spent fishing, doing crafts together, playing football are often experiences that will be remembered long after expensive gifts have been outgrown.

n Source imaginative gifts at craft fairs and local markets, where there'll be unique foodstuffs and fancy goods, with no discernible price tag.

n Offer help rather than gifts. A voucher for an evening's babysitting, help with gardening or ironing, a beautiful homemade cake may be much appreciated.

n Source free entertainment. Carol services, concerts and country walks are often enjoyable ways to spend a few hours and can provide welcome reasons to leave the house.

n Reduce Christmas food spending by preparing in advance tasty staples like casseroles, stews and pies. It's often a treat to wrap up, enjoy a brisk walk and return to delicious comfort food. Guests will appreciate comfort food as a change from lavish Christmas fare.

n Have you heard of safari suppers; each house provides one course, then moves from one to the next course, so everyone shares the cost and effort.

n Accept offers of help. If guests want to bring wine, food or make their signature dish, let them and reduce your financial burden.

n Resist the temptation to keep on spending. All too often we'll see another 'perfect' gift or some 'must-have' tasty treats. Stop looking! Those items are often unnecessary, no one will miss them and yet they can add significantly to the overall expense of Christmas.

Susan Leigh, counsellor, hypnotherapist