Did Christmas leave your bank balance looking smaller than you’d hoped? Christmas savings schemes claim to make the season easier on your wallet. But these schemes aren’t created equal. We found big differences between the best ones and the turkeys.

Christmas hampers

Christmas hampers brought the least joy to our world. We’ve consistently found hamper deals are an expensive way to buy groceries.

There are two main hamper providers: Chrisco and The Christmas Catalogue Company (previously known as the Good Guys Xmas Club).

How they work

You select a hamper from the company's catalogue and arrange for a regular direct debit or automatic payment to pay for it. But you don’t get to select the goods in the grocery hamper – they’re pre-chosen. The hampers are delivered in November and December.

While lay-by payments force you to save and the goods are conveniently delivered to your home, you may not want all the items and you’ll have to find room to store everything when it arrives. You can also end up paying more for the groceries than if you’d bought them from the supermarket.

Chrisco’s Traditional Festive Food Hamper is $465 but we found an equivalent basket of goods from Countdown’s online shopping website which cost us only $386 including delivery – a 17 percent saving.

The Christmas Catalogue Company’s Mega Xmas Hamper is $990. But we could buy the same or equivalent goods online for $606 including delivery – a whopping 39 percent difference! That’s a lot to pay for convenience … and for hamper items that include two-minute noodles and household basics like salt and sugar.

Worth it?

Christmas hampers are a pricey way to buy groceries – particularly when you don’t have complete control over what you’re getting. The companies say their costs include picking, packing and delivery. So weigh up how much it’s worth to you to have someone else doing the work.

Cancelling and refunds

Chrisco gives you a 21-day cooling-off period to change your mind about your order. After that, there’s a hefty cancellation fee of 20 percent of what you've paid in (up to a maximum of $250). If you can't keep up the payments, the company will supply a smaller hamper or vouchers.

The Christmas Catalogue Company calculates fees individually, depending on the time of cancellation and any selling costs it incurs at that point (this includes costs such as administration, salaries, and the price of any hamper items the company had bought for you before you cancelled).

Christmas clubs

These supermarket-based clubs offer the discipline of regular automatic payments or direct debits plus the flexibility of paying in a bit more each week when you shop, or buying vouchers as and when you can afford it.

Unlike the hampers, clubs let you choose what you want and you can do this over several trips during the Christmas season. In the Countdown and New World schemes, you can also earn One Card and Fly Buys points on your Christmas shopping. And some stores have special club events with promotional offers for members as Christmas gets closer.

How they work

At Countdown, FreshChoice and SuperValue you can buy Christmas club vouchers in different amounts throughout the year.

The Countdown vouchers give you a 5 percent bonus when you use them between 1 December and 31 January – as long as you’ve purchased them before 1 December. They can also be used before 1 December but you won’t get the bonus.

At SuperValue and FreshChoice, you get a 5 percent discount on the vouchers when you buy them. FreshChoice also offers a Christmas Saver Plan which gives a 5 percent discount on weekly automatic payments towards vouchers. The vouchers can only be used in December or January.

New World and Pak'nSave, along with Four Square’s South Island outlets, issue Christmas club cards. You pay into your card through regular automatic payments or direct debit, or at the supermarket itself. You can earn bonuses on the saved amount varying from 2.04 to 7.53 percent (depending on where you live, when you add funds and which club you join).

In New World and Pak'nSave’s upper North Island and South Island outlets you can spend your savings any time before 1 December – but you won’t earn the bonus on any money you spend then. This also applies to the Four Square outlets in the South Island. If you don’t spend all of your money and bonuses at Christmas, unspent money and bonuses can be spent at any time in the following year.

In New World and Pak'nSave’s lower North Island outlets you can’t spend your savings before 1 December. You get to spend your savings, plus the bonus, between 1 December and 29 February. Unspent money will be carried over to the next Christmas Club year.

Worth it?

Supermarket Christmas clubs offer good value for money. Put $12.50 away each week for 40 weeks from February and you could have between $521 and $526 to spend (see our comparison table). But vouchers can be a hassle – they will expire and they’re not secure: you could lose them, or they could be stolen. Cards have the advantage that they can be registered with the store and disabled if lost or stolen

Cancelling and refunds

The FreshChoice Christmas Saver plan has no cooling-off period, although it told us it was thinking about introducing one. If you can’t keep up your payments you can stop immediately and get your money back.

New World and Pak’nSave in the lower North Island give you a 7-day cooling-off period to cancel in writing, at which point you’ll get your money back (but not the bonus value). After that, they’ll “consider” cancellations plus refunds on a case-by-case basis. The upper North Island and South Island outlets of New World and Pak’nSave, and South Island outlets of Four Square don’t have a cooling-off period and you can only exchange your savings for goods, with no refunds being given.

Other "card" schemes

There are two main providers: Hampsta and The Warehouse.

How it works

You make payments to your card throughout the year. With Hampsta, you do this through regular direct debits but you can also make top-up payments at some of its partner retailers’ stores. The Warehouse lets you make payments instore, by direct debit, or through internet banking.

You don’t earn any interest on the money in your Christmas savings card. But The Warehouse gives you a 5 percent discount on your purchases, even on already discounted items. It also offers a $500 prize draw each month for cardholders who’ve topped up during the month.

The Warehouse card has no fees. The Hampsta card has a $39 annual maintenance fee and a $40 closure (cancellation) fee.

Access to your savings is locked in until the “Christmas period”. For Hampsta, this means 1 December until 10 January. The Warehouse card is more restricted: 1 December to 31 December. With both cards, any balance left over in your account accumulates until the next Christmas.

Both these cards have rules about where you can spend your savings. The Warehouse card can only be used in its stores. Hampsta's is restricted to its partner retailers – which currently include well-known clothing, beverage, gift and entertainment retailers.

But there’s no guarantee Hampsta’s retailers will remain the same throughout the year. Hampsta cardholders discovered this in late 2013 when Countdown ceased being a partner. Some didn’t even find out until they were at a Countdown checkout with a load of Christmas shopping, unable to use their Hampsta card. A few cleverly used their Hampsta card at Z petrol stations to buy Prezzy Cards that could be used at Countdown or other supermarkets. Hampsta says most partners are on contracts of 3 to 5 years and it tells cardholders this information if they ask.

Worth it?

They both offer more variety than just groceries. But because of the annual maintenance fee, you don’t get to spend all the money you’ve put on your Hampsta card. The Warehouse card is free and offers discounts. (See our comparison table).

Cancelling and refunds

Hampsta has no cooling-off period and you can’t cancel your membership in your first year before 1 December. After your first year, refunds can only be made before 1 September and you’ll get what’s left of your money once the $40 cancellation and $39 maintenance fees have been deducted. Failing to keep making your payments through the year means Hampsta will automatically cancel your membership – and when that happens your money will be refunded, minus its two fees.

The Warehouse card gives you a 7-day cooling-off period (10 days if you’re paying by direct debit). You’ll be refunded the money you’ve paid in as long as you cancel within that period – but after that you’ll need to wait until December, to spend the money on your card. The Warehouse will “consider” cancellations plus refunds on a case-by-case basis.

Savings accounts

A savings account which allows you access to your money in case of an emergency – but otherwise rewards you for not dipping into your savings – is another option for Christmas savings. Look for a savings account that pays a bonus interest rate each month if the balance in your account has increased or if you’ve made no withdrawals.

How they work

The easiest way to operate one of these accounts is to set up an automatic payment (at least monthly and preferably on pay day).

Most of the banks have bonus saver accounts. The accounts we looked at don’t charge maintenance or base fees, so the interest you earn doesn’t get nibbled away. (See our Bank fees article for more information about accounts and interest rates.)

Most credit unions have accounts specifically designed for Christmas savings and some have very competitive interest rates. They usually give you access to your savings from 1 December to 31 January and some let you access the funds as early as November.

Worth it?

These accounts are an easy way to save – and you can save for gifts as well as food or even back-to-school costs in January. But (depending on the interest rate you get on your savings account), a Christmas club may give you better value if you’re just saving for groceries.