A third of working parents likely to take on extra work or avoid time off to afford Christmas

Monday 29 November 2021
Mum Natalia and daughter sat at kitchen table

As the cost of living soars, new research reveals that rising energy bills and prices are among the top financial concerns among working parents this Christmas

  • Poll of working parents finds three quarters worried about soaring energy bills and prices in shops, with a third planning to take on extra work or avoid time off to pay for Christmas. Of these, nine in ten likely to miss out on at least one key family moment like waking up on Christmas morning together or unwrapping presents together.
  • Working parents on Universal Credit plan to cut back on heating and eating, with nearly a quarter saying they are likely to replace some meals with breakfast cereal.
  • Children’s poll finds nearly two-thirds fear a difficult family Christmas, with their parents worried about making it a happy time. Many concerned about keeping family safe from Covid and ability of parents to afford presents and cost of Christmas
  • One mum said: “I’m really worried about the bills going up. I’m only turning on the heating in the living room now it’s got colder – I just wrap Chloe and me up in more clothes.”

As the country battles with the highest rate of inflation in almost ten years¹, new research by Action for Children today reveals soaring energy bills and rising prices are the top financial concerns among working parents this Christmas. And a third (32%) said they plan to take on extra work or avoid taking time off over the festive period to cover the cost of Christmas. Of these, nine in ten (90%) say they are likely to miss out on at least one key family moment like waking up on Christmas morning together, unwrapping presents together on Christmas Day or attending a school nativity play.

To launch its annual Secret Santa campaign to help the country’s most vulnerable children, the charity worked with Opinium on a survey of 2,500 working parents and 1,000 children (aged 8-17) across the UK to explore the financial burden facing families in the run-up to Christmas.

With the governor of the Bank of England Andrew Bailey ‘very sorry’ that UK inflation is rising and biting on household incomes², the survey found working parents’ top five money worries this Christmas were:

  1. the rise in energy bills (76%)
  2. rising prices (75%)
  3. price of food (67%)
  4. car fuel costs (65%), and
  5. affording warm winter clothing for their family (48%)

More than three in ten (31%) working parents said they are likely to gift their children everyday basics, such as school books, school shoes or a school coat for their main Christmas present this year. The poll also found over a third (36%) plan to cut back on celebrations and parties, nearly three in ten (29%) will save on presents for their partner and a quarter (25%) will spend less on Christmas food and travelling to visit friends and family.

This Christmas looks especially challenging for working parents on Universal Credit following the £20-a-week cut in October. Of these parents:

  • nearly two in five (38%) are likely to cut back on heating
  • almost a third (30%) are likely to skip meals
  • nearly a quarter (24%) are likely to replace some meals with breakfast cereal or cut back on hot meals to save on energy costs (23%), and
  • one in five (20%) said they will likely need to seek help from a food bank over the break

With last year’s Christmas seen by many as having been ‘cancelled’ due to the pandemic and lockdown restrictions, the poll also found more than a third (36%) of parents said they feel under more pressure to give their children a happy Christmas this year.

When asked about their parents’ biggest fears this Christmas, most children (63%) thought their mums and dads would be worried about making Christmas a happy time for their family, over half (53%) said they would be concerned about keeping their family safe and healthy from Covid-19, and a similar figure (49%) said they would be anxious about making sure everyone has presents and that they were able to afford everything they need to celebrate Christmas (47%).

Director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, Imran Hussain, said: “For most of us the festive season is a happy time but there are children all over the UK who face a very different Christmas. After almost two years of worry, isolation and poverty, many families are now at breaking point, struggling to afford the basics like food, heating and clothes.

“Our frontline workers see the impact the pandemic and cost of living crisis is having on children and families who are under pressure every day, but we also see the difference that can be made – that’s why we’re asking people to donate to help us make a life-changing difference to vulnerable children this Christmas and beyond.

“With your help this Christmas we can be a vital lifeline for even more UK children. We can make sure they have the basics, like hot meals and proper winter clothes and offer emergency support to keep homes warm and help families pay the bills.”

Case study

Factory worker Natalia, 35, lives with her one-year-old daughter, Chloe, in Norfolk. After breaking up with her partner and Chloe’s father a few weeks into the first lockdown in March 2020, Natalia and Chloe had to move out and were helped to find emergency accommodation by Action for Children.

After several months, Natalia’s support worker Kirsty helped to find the family a permanent home and furnish it with white goods and furniture using a grant from Action for Children’s emergency fund. With maternity pay from her factory job reduced, costs incurred from making their new home liveable and from having to buy from more expensive food shops close to home without a car, Natalia, who claims Universal Credit, soon found herself struggling to afford basic essentials.

Natalia said: “Living on so little makes budgeting really difficult. I’m still using a foodbank every week to make sure Chloe has enough to eat. I often go without food to make sure she has enough, and I regularly eat cereal for a main evening meal.”

Natalia returned to work at the factory two days a week in March this year after her maternity leave finished but still noticed after she had paid all her bills and nursery fees, she was left with only around £70 a month to live on.

She said: “It was Kirsty who pointed out I should be getting free childcare. She showed me how to apply and helped me follow up with the right people.

“Money is still a very stressful thing for me even with the childcare payments now coming through. I do everything I can to buy as cheap as possible and save costs wherever I can. I always pay all the bills as soon as I’ve been paid but what’s left is so hard to spread over the month. Now, I’ve lost £20 a week in Universal Credit – that’s such a lot of money to me.

She added: “I’m really worried about the bills going up. I’m only turning on the heating in the living room now it’s got colder – I just wrap Chloe and me up in more clothes.”

Natalia is planning a quiet Christmas and despite her money worries is looking forward to spending time with her daughter. She said: “I’m looking forward to just being together with Chloe, going on walks, reading and playing together. I’m not planning on doing anything special and am not treating myself to any new clothes or anything. I have a Christmas tree from last year I’ll reuse, and some friends have invited us over for Christmas Day but that’s it really.

“I’m lucky in that Chloe is a toddler and isn’t fussed about expensive toys and presents – she has a few dolls and a pram we were given but she loves just sitting on the sofa and looking at books, so I’ll buy her some second-hand ones as a main present. I’d love for her to visit a Santa Grotto somewhere but without a car, it’s really difficult trying to find somewhere we can afford to get to on public transport.”

Natalie’s Action for Children support worker, Kirsty Massie, said: “Day in, day out we're seeing families struggling to make ends meet like Natalia and Chloe. Parents are worried about Christmas but more concerned about how they’re going to provide for their children with rising costs. They feel they’re letting their children down and sometimes it’s more about making sure their child has what they need, but then they themselves go without. Parents are embarrassed and too proud about asking for help when they’re struggling but they know this is the only way they’ll manage through these difficult times.”

Be a Secret Santa for a vulnerable child this Christmas text CHILD to 70607* or visit



Huw Beale, Senior Media Officer, Action for Children: 07718 114 038 / [email protected]

Out of hours 07802 806 679 / [email protected]


* Texts cost £10, plus one message at your standard network rate. We receive 100% of your donation. Please ensure you obtain the bill payer’s permission. We’d love to stay in touch with you via phone and SMS to tell you more about our work and how you can support it. To give £10 but opt-out from any future contact text CHILD NO to 70607. Customer care 0300 123 2112.

¹ Inflation: UK prices soar at fastest rate for almost ten years ² Bank of England sorry for rising cost of living – BBC News

Action for Children commissioned Opinium to survey 2,500 working UK parents aged 18+ and 1,000 UK children aged 8-17. Fieldwork took place between 26 October and 5 November 2021. Most of the fieldwork was carried out after the cut to the Universal Credit taper was announced at the Budget on 27 October. Results tables are available on request.

Action for Children protects and supports vulnerable children and young people by providing practical and emotional care and support, ensuring their voices are heard and campaigning to bring lasting improvements to their lives. With 512 services across the UK, in schools and online, in 2020/21 we helped 604,885 children, young people and families.