Holiday revelers likely to rein in spending

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As shell-shocked American consumers limp into the 2008 holiday season, most plan to have fun with less emphasis on spending.

In October, a Gallup poll reported that 35 percent of Americans intend to spend less this holiday season than they spent in 2007. In October last year, only 19 percent of Americans planned to spend less than they had the previous year.

Gallup reports that the percentage of people expecting to spend less is at a record high for the survey. The previous high, 33 percent, came in late November/early December of 1991.

According to the poll, the average amount that consumers predict they will spend on the holidays this year is $801, down $100 from last year.

A poll released on Oct. 16 by the National Retail Federation found similar results. Among those polled, the average amount to be spent on holiday-related shopping this year will be $832.36. That represents an increase of 1.9 percent from last year’s anticipated holiday spending amount, $816.69 — the lowest increase since the survey began in 2002, the NRF says.

Bankrate recently asked readers to report their strategies for holiday spending this year. Some gave their names and hometowns; others didn’t. But their e-mails revealed that most tend to agree with what the polls have found so far this year — they are likely to spend less and budget more.

Trimming expenses

For instance, Cozette Moss says, “I usually spend about $1,500 at Christmas for six people, but this year I have limited the amount to no more than $700 to $800. Instead of high-priced items, there will be several smaller priced gifts.”

Another Bankrate reader, Kelli Smith, of Edmund, Okla., says she will scale back on holiday festivities this year.

“I’m spending a little less this year, putting a little more thought into the gifts and getting more of the things that people need rather than lavish items they want,” she says.

Michael McClymont also plans to spend less. “We are cutting way back, at least 50 percent,” he says. “My whole family is doing the same.”

Holiday blowout

Still, not everyone expects to downgrade their spending on gifts and holiday trimmings.

Kim Peters from Nixa, Mo., says she will “spend as usual.” And reader Sascha Alexander of Ephrata, Wash., has major designs in place for shopping this season.

“I am planning on spending more money this year than last year. I want to get more of the relatives good and perfect gifts this year. Not just get any old thing. I plan on making it a very merry Christmas,” she says.

At least one group of consumers also are planning to spend as much money as possible — teenagers. A poll released Nov. 10 by National Junior Achievement called the 2008 Teen Holiday Spending poll found that 76 percent of teens expect to spend as much or more than they did last year.

Indeed, 47 percent of teens say they are going to spend at least $100 on gifts this year.

Smart shopping

Freed from the limited incomes of the teenage years, adults often go overboard on shopping and load up their credit cards with presents.

The Consumer Reports Holiday Shopping Poll, released November 6, found that 6 percent of Americans are going into the 2008 holiday season with debt from last year’s merrymaking.

By taking advantage of sales and even spreading holiday shopping throughout the year, shoppers can avoid falling into the credit-card trap.

Stretching out shopping over a period of weeks helps Cynthia Knopp of Georgetown, Ind., cut costs. “Making a list early and making one or two small purchases every week helps to cut costs by allowing you to take advantage of sales and specials,” she says.

That kind of smart shopping strategy has helped Jeanne Barkemeijer de Wit of Anaheim, Calif., for 20 years, and she says that she won’t change a thing this year. “I start purchasing for Christmas on Christmas Eve and continue purchasing during sales, all year long,” she says.

“I keep a big Christmas box, into which I place my purchases — everything from wrapping paper to gloves, jewelry, children’s toys, and anything else on my friends’ and family’s must-have list,” says Barkemeijer de Wit.

“Two years ago I started using the Web to look for closeouts, sales and more,” she says.

Forget buying gifts

However, the power of the Internet to bring sales and shoppers together can’t help everyone this year. The current dismal economy has hit some families harder than others.

“I don’t know where money is coming for Christmas this year, trying to pay heating and household bills which is getting to be impossible some days. Getting very nervous,” says one Bankrate reader.

Another reader, R.A. from Yardley, Pa., who asked that her full name not be used, is also struggling with overwhelming energy costs.

“This will be the first time in 37 years I will not purchase gifts for my children,” she says. “My oldest is 37 and youngest is 24, so they will understand, but it is sad. We never bought extravagant gifts, but even modest gifts are not in the budget this year.”

With a big home to heat in the winter, her family is finding it impossible to remain in their house in eastern Pennsylvania where they have lived for 25 years. They had intended to pay off the mortgage and retire, but instead they will be selling the house and moving to a less expensive part of the country.

Reason for the season

Some readers feel that the holidays will be just as good without as many presents, and maybe even better without all the frenzied shopping and wrapping.

For instance, Lucy Rivers means to downplay materialism and emphasize family this year. “Our family is going back to a more traditional, simpler Christmas celebration. We will draw names at Thanksgiving. Each person is to provide a Christmas stocking for the person they drew and fill it with simple, low-cost things that the person will like. It will make Christmas giving less expensive, less commercialized and much more personal and fun,” she says.

Despite lean and uncertain times, it turns out that Americans are optimistic about their ability to enjoy some good cheer and family time over the holidays without overdosing on the consumer trappings.

The Consumer Reports Holiday Shopping Poll found that 88 percent of Americans feel that the coming holiday season will be at least as happy as last year and 28 percent predict that this year will be even happier than 2007.

A Bankrate work sheet may help with spending less and staying happy throughout the holidays.

“We have decided to totally not do gifts this year,” says Sharon Richwine of Columbus, Ohio. “We want to emphasize that getting together as a family is the best gift of all.”