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For many of us, the holidays herald a stressful money test: how much should we spend on presents for the kids, parents, spouses, a teacher or two and that fancy friend.
It’s a triggering tab we often fret about.
Slightly more than half of people (51 percent) say they feel pressured to spend more than they are comfortable with on gifts during the holidays, according to the 2019 Bankrate Holiday Gifting Survey. Moreover, 43 percent of consumers named not having enough money to afford gifts their top holiday money concern, per a November 2019 Early Warning Services’ report.
Consumers are expected to spend $659 on gifts for family, friends and co-workers on average, according to an October 2019 National Retail Federation survey. On the popular savings app Digit, the price tag for users is even steeper: the average savings goal for gifts is $1,560, per a company spokesperson.
The first — and arguably only rule — for gift-giving this holiday season is to avoid the kind of spending that sinks you more into debt.
“Don’t try to go over the top with everything,” says Elaine Swann, etiquette expert and founder of the Swann School of Protocol. “Give based on what you are able to contribute as opposed to what you think the person would spend.”
What that number is ultimately depends on your personal finances and preferences. Here, experts weigh in on some helpful guiding principles to keep us within the bounds of our budget.
Determine what you can afford
Sure, we meant to save up for holiday gifts earlier in the year. But that medical expense and broken laptop interfered with those kind of fantasies. Now, the key is to check in with your bank balance (and upcoming expenses) to understand what you can afford to spend on gifts before shopping with abandon.
“Do you have wiggle room in your budget, and if so, how much?” says Trae Bodge, a smart shopping expert for TrueTrae.com. “Then, base it on that because I really don’t think people should carry balances over month-to-month on their credit cards.”
Set your spending limit accordingly.
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Establish spending guidelines, per the experts
If you can afford to buy presents but have no clue how much to spend, first consider your relationship. “The closer you are to them, the more money you would spend [or] send,” Swann says.
In general, experts we interviewed recommend spending around $100 on spouses, $75-$100 on parents, $50 and up for siblings. For kids, $75 is a good starting point but it’s easy to get carried away here — especially when they are under 18. The vast majority of families with younger children (71 percent) say they felt pressure to overspend on gifts, per the Bankrate study. But you may want to put on the spending brakes.
“If you’re in a situation where your finances are really tight, you should absolutely not be spending $200 or $300 on your kids,” Bodge says. “You should sit down with them and say ‘What’s the thing you really, really want? And it has to be under X number.’”
For good friends, experts say $15 to $25 is an appropriate amount, but reduce the amount spent if you plan to give gifts to more than two or three friends. For hosts and teachers, spend in the $15-$25 range. If you are contributing to a group gift for a teacher with other parents and still want to give him/her something extra, contain the cost to $10-$12.
If you live in a different state from the recipient, be sure to factor in additional costs.
“You might say, ‘Oh it’s $40 a person,’ but the next thing you know you’re spending on shipping and gift wrapping on those [presents] and it might be $50 a person now,” says Luis F. Rosa, CFP, founder of Build a Better Financial Future and host of the On My Way to Wealth podcast.
On a tight budget? Try these four shopping moves
To stay within the boundaries of your budget while shopping, try these moves.
1. Shop with a list
Brent Weiss, CFP, chief evangelist and co-founder of Facet Wealth, recommends going into any shopping experience — online or in person — with a budget and a plan to avoid the inevitable retailer’s tricks designed to make you buy more. “Just like Santa Claus where he’s making a list and checking it twice, you should make a list and check it twice,” Weiss says.
Add yourself to the gift list budget, too. “Inevitably, you are going to be out and you’re going to see something you like,” Bodge says. “But if you have yourself on the list and you set a budget for yourself as well, you will be more thoughtful about what you actually treat yourself to.”
If shopping online, use a browser extension, like Slickdeals or Honey (which PayPal is acquiring), to apply coupons to your gifts. You may also want to consider buying a discounted gift card through a company like Gift Card Granny and using it to buy something for someone at a discounted rate.
2. Go in on a group gift
“Not everyone has money to spend on a larger gift,” Swann says.
So, break down the costs among a group of people. To quickly collect cash from the group, you can use a payments service, like PayPal’s Venmo, Zelle or Square Cash.
3. Buy thoughtful, not expensive, gifts
Give based on what you can contribute. “Even though you may have someone who lives a luxurious lifestyle that doesn’t mean you have to purchase a luxurious gift,” Swann says. “Give something meaningful.”
4. Cash in on perks you’ve already earned
Your bank provider may offer you deals at places you want to shop. Login to your account to see if the bank is, say, offering 5 percent off at Airbnb or Target. Also consider cashing in on any credit card points you’ve earned to keep gift costs down.
If you have a wholesale card membership somewhere, use it. “[People] think ‘I’m only going to Costco to buy food for my big family dinner,’ but they have gifts too,” Bodge says.
Ignore what everybody else is doing for the holidays. You do you.
“There is no need to go overboard,” Bodge says. “If you have to explain it to people, they should understand.”
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