How to make a reverse advent calendar

Miss Thrifty8 November 3, 2017

A reverse advent calendar is easy to make and it’s a great cause. You will need the following items:

– An empty cardboard box.
– An open wallet: if you are in the UK, around £15 should do – although you can create a reverse advent calendar for as little as £5. See below for details.
– An open heart (awww).

A reverse advent calendar is the opposite of a normal advent calendar. With a normal advent calendar, you open a door each day to see a picture, take out a chocolate or get some other prize. With a reverse advent calendar, you begin with an empty box. Every day for 24 days, you add one item a day. After 24 days when the box is full, you donate it to your local food bank.


Why make a reverse advent calendar?

With food bank use having risen sharply over the past few years, it is a sad truth that our food banks are always in need of donated items from members of the public.

In the UK, you can’t just walk into a food bank and walk out with bags of food: you have to be referred by an approved organisation such as a community mental health team, children’s centre or welfare agency. Foodbank users are there because for whatever reason – suspended or delayed benefits being the most common – they don’t have enough money to feed themselves or their families.

This year alone the Trussell Trust, which runs the biggest number of food banks around the UK, has made up nearly 1.2 million food parcels for people in crisis. It’s a similar situation in the USA, where the Feeding America food bank network distributes 4 billion(!) meals annually.

While all this is going on, have you noticed that adult advent calendars are suddenly a thing? Big bulky things, costing between £30 and £100. So far this year I have seen:

  • Cheese advent calendars
  • Gin advent calendars
  • Cosmetics advent calendars
  • Prosecco advent calendars

I’ve also noticed children’s advent calendars becoming increasingly luxurious and expensive: I know we are on countdown until Thrifty Kid discovers this £30 one exists.

Each to their own. I don’t begrudge the cheese fan their 24 little chunks of cellophane-wrapped cheese at inflated prices. However my own thoughts on the subject could be best summed up as: HEAVENS ALIVE! ARE YOU SERIOUS? Stop rinsing us, retailers! Christmas is expensive enough without making a new, needless ‘tradition’ out of this.

What can I say? I’m a terribly worthy tightwad. As are you, I am guessing: that’s why you are here. But it is for these reasons that, when my blogger pal Sara at Debt Camel told a bunch of UK Money Bloggers what a reverse advent calendar was, I loved the idea immediately. So did the others: we have taken it up as a collective UK Money Bloggers Christmas project this year. (You can find more posts about our reverse advent calendars here.)

So: instead of spending money on tat novelty items for yourself, why not spend a fraction of the amount on making Christmas that little bit nicer for people who are struggling right now?

It’s so quick and easy to make a reverse advent calendar. I’ve seen people on Pinterest going all Tony Hart on the idea, and creating beautifully-crafted boxes, but you really don’t have to do that if you don’t have time. An empty, plain cardboard box works just as well. The donations will be split up and food bank users tend to transport their items in carrier bags. What is in the box is what matters most.


When is the best time to start?

This is an excellent question – and one for which I have a slightly pointed answer. The answer is: not December!

Many food banks only open for a couple of days a week, and Christmas Eve falls on a Sunday this year. If you begin filling your reverse advent calendar on 1 December, with the aim of dropping off your donations after 24 December, the supplies won’t get to people until January is under way.

Then again, December is fine – as long as you are aware that your supplies won’t get to people until the following month. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing: apparently donations to food banks peak in December and drop off in January. Your local food bank volunteers won’t mind; they are simply grateful for any supplies you can provide.

However if you are making a reverse advent calendar to help tide people over the Christmas period, the best time to start is the end of October or early November. That way, you can get your box to your local food bank a few weeks before the Christmas break, which leaves plenty of time for its contents to be sorted and distributed.


What should I put in my reverse advent calendar?

At the Trussell Trust, more than 90% of the food is donated by the general public. It is collected and divided into food parcels, each of which will provide at least three days of healthy, balanced meals for individuals and families.

A typical food parcel will include the following:

  • Breakfast cereal.
  • Packet or tinned soup.
  • Pasta.
  • Rice.
  • Pasta sauce.
  • Baked beans.
  • Tinned meat.
  • Tinned vegetables.
  • Tea or coffee.
  • Tinned fruit.
  • Biscuits.

Non-food items, such as toiletries and feminine hygiene products, are also appreciated.


What did you put in your advent calendar?

Day 1: a six-pack of toilet roll (£2).

Day 2: tin of baked beans (25p).

Day 3: a pack of 20 nappies (£1.38) and a pack of baby wipes (56p). Nappies are expensive, but the supermarket value packs come in at around the £1.40-£1.70 mark and are perfectly serviceable. I didn’t buy the value baby wipes, although they cost 10p less, because the chemicals irritated my babies’ bottoms when they were little. Own-brand sensitive wipes it was.

Day 4: tin of Irish stew (60p).

Day 5: another tin of baked beans (32p), supermarket brand this time.

Day 6: tin of sliced carrots (20p).

Day 7: tin of potatoes (35p).

Day 8: spray bottle of kitchen cleaner (£1).

Day 9: bottle of shampoo (40p).

Day 10: bag of rice (65p).

Day 11: bag of penne pasta (40p).

Day 12: tin of chicken curry (60p).

Day 13: tin of tomatoes (25p).

Day 14: tin of spaghetti in tomato sauce (20p).

Day 15: tin of peas (40p).

Day 16: three bars of soap (50p).

Day 17: small bag of sugar (50p).

Day 18: bottle of washing-up liquid (61p). I went for supermarket own-brand: the value stuff just doesn’t last long.

Day 19: jar of lemon curd (35p).

Day 20: tin of custard (30p) and a packet of strawberry jelly cubes (55p).

Day 21: tin of sardines (50p).

Day 22: a packet of sanitary towels (25p), a box of tampons (71p) and a packet of incontinence pads (£1.25).

Day 23: biscuit assortment (£1), containing four packets of different biscuits.

Day 24: bag of banana eclairs (70p). Everybody deserves a sweet treat at Christmas, right?


What items are not suitable for a reverse advent calendar?

The following items should be avoided:

  • Perishable food.
  • Food past its use-by or best-before date.
  • Chocolate advent calendars. (There is a sad reason for this, which I have detailed at the bottom of this post.)


How much does a reverse advent calendar cost?

My reverse advent calendar cost £16.78. As you can see from the list of items, the prices varied. The most expensive item I added was a multipack of toilet roll, which cost £2.

However the cheapest items, tinned carrots and tinned spaghetti, cost just 20p each. If your own budget is tight and you don’t have £17 to spare, but you still want to make a reverse advent calendar for your local food bank, you could do so for less than £5 (20p tins x 24 days = £4.80).


How do I find my nearest food bank?

If you are in the UK, you can find your nearest Trussell Trust food bank by using this postcode tool. The website will have also have contact details, so you can arrange to drop your box off.

Not all food banks are run by the Trussell Trust. Your local supermarket is likely to have a poster on its noticeboard, with details of the closest one.

If you are in the USA, there is a similar tool on the Feeding America website.

Both the Trussell Trust and Feeding America recommend that, if you are planning to donate grocery products, you contact your nearest food bank to find out what they are short of at that time. The Trussell Trust also lists these items on the local food bank pages so, even if you know where your nearest food bank is, it’s worth a look.

I enjoyed putting my reverse advent calendar together: I’m delighted that such a small amount of time, effort and expenditure can make such a difference to somebody’s Christmas.


reverse advent calendar


A final note: avoid adding this item to your reverse advent calendar.

This is gloomy but, if you are planning to make a reverse advent calendar, you should know this.

When my fellow money blogger Faith, from Much More With Less, spoke to a volunteer at her local food bank, she discovered that chocolate advent calendars are not recommended items. Apparently, chocolate advent calendars often arrive too late and create unrealistic hopes and expectations about Christmas Day: “for most children getting food bank parcels, there is no pot of gold at the end of the calendar.”

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8 Responses to “How to make a reverse advent calendar

Lori Geurin says:

I had no idea there were so many different types of advent calendars. The ones I’m familiar with have little windows and you open one each day. This is first I’ve heard of a reverse advent calendar, but I absolutely love the idea!

November 3, 2017 at 5:17 pm

I love this idea! It’s fantastic! What a great way to help people who aren’t as fortunate as others, I think I’m going to do this this year and find my local food bank to donate it to!

November 4, 2017 at 1:04 pm

Emily Smith says:

What a wonderful idea! I love the idea of giving back in anyway possible and this is such a great concept to get in the holiday spirit while thinking of others, which is truly what the season is about.

November 4, 2017 at 5:56 pm

First time I’ve heard of reverse advent calendar. I learn new things everyday. Usually, we donate food and toys to the food bank a few weeks before the big holidays.

November 5, 2017 at 12:27 am

Caroline says:

Thanks for the shopping list! having that will be really useful, and I can tweak if I feel like it 🙂

November 14, 2017 at 8:05 pm

Lyn Brooks says:

Hi. I made mum in law an advent gin calender by buying mini gins from a website and using toilet roll tubes and tissue paper. Cheaper than the shop ones. She’d never had anything like this before and it’s going to last her ages. Best present (and it was frugal enough) I’ve ever given her

January 29, 2018 at 11:01 pm

louise says:

this is such a great & thoughtful idea… i will be doing this with my friends this year 🙂

March 22, 2018 at 1:39 pm

The Furnshop says:

This is really amazing. I just love it. Making a reverse advent calendar is an awesome idea. Thanks a lot for sharing this post.

July 3, 2018 at 7:29 am

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