Financing the Holidays

Even for the most earnest of holiday well-wishers, the season still calls for spending. Traveling to see family can yield heavy travel costs, gift-giving certainly isn’t free, and of course, there’s everyone’s holiday must-do’s: eat, drink, and be merry (which sadly, aren’t always free).

Once it’s all added up, you’d probably be shocked to see what an average American really spends during the holiday season. We would know – we surveyed 1,017 gift-givers across the country. However, holiday spending doesn’t have to be a drain on your wallet. Keep reading to learn how to save and spend responsibly during the most wonderful time of the year.

Generous Gestures

When we said Americans spent heavily during the holidays, we meant it. On average, respondents planned to spend $1,193 this holiday season. Primarily, these costs included gifts ($536), travel ($350), food or drink ($194), and decorations ($113). Gift-giving was the largest of these expenditures, and on average, respondents had nine people on their shopping lists.

Tis the Season to Spend

But who was the most giving? That distinction belongs to Generation X. They planned to spend the most this year, no matter the holiday category. Currently, between 40 and 54 years old, Gen Xers might be the most likely to buy gifts for children and grandchildren, as well as having to pay for travel to visit their extended families. Perhaps they’re even hosting more parties and are, therefore, in need of more food and drink, as well as decorations.

But spending the most doesn’t necessarily pay off. The more respondents planned to spend, the likelier they were to report higher levels of stress. Those who planned to spend over $600 on gifts described themselves as “extremely or very stressed,” while those who planned to spend less than $500 experienced no stress at all. Continue reading to see the other impacts holiday expenditures have on American finances.

Bankrolling the Joy of Giving

Considering that most Americans couldn’t afford a $1,000 emergency expense, it’s safe to assume that holiday expenditures may be stretching many budgets thin. As it turns out, 38.5% of respondents took money from their savings to help cover holiday costs last year.

What methods did you use to finance last year's holiday spending?

Unless you’ve set aside money to pay for holiday expenses, it might not be in your best interest to dip into your savings when the holidays roll around. Your savings account can help build resilience against surprise expenses and prepare you for major purchases, such as a car or home.

Nearly 11% of respondents dipped into their emergency fund for gift-giving, and 10.1% sold possessions for cash to pay for holiday purchases. In the most extreme cases, 4.3% took out a personal loan to make it through the holidays financially. Since these loans typically have to be paid back with interest, it’s important to consider the potential long-term impact on your financial situation before resorting to this method.

Credit Card Debt Can Creep Up During the Holidays

Most Americans are currently in debt, and this year’s holidays will make that debt grow if they’re anything like the last. Nearly a third of respondents said they had gone into credit card debt to cover last year’s expenses, averaging $745 in credit card debt from the previous holiday season.

Going Into Debt to Give

For some (16.9%), holiday debts were substantial enough to have kept them in debt through the year, with these respondents reporting they were still in the process of making payments. This was actually more common than paying off debt in less than a month.

Of course, going into credit card debt left respondents more likely to report extreme levels of stress during the holidays. If holiday financial stress is familiar to you, remind yourself that it truly is the thought that counts when it comes to picking gifts for loved ones.

Seasonal Spending Plans

As we’ve discovered, holiday spending can negatively impact your finances well into the new year, but there are ways to plan and shop smartly. More than half of respondents agreed it’s imperative to create a special budget for the holiday season. A holiday budget can prevent you from going beyond your means and keep your spending in a responsible range. You can make the money you’ve set aside go further by shopping for gifts on big sale days, like Black Friday or Cyber Monday.

Holiday Saving Strategies

Nearly a third of respondents planned to use only cash or debit for holiday expenditures this year, which can prevent them from accruing credit card debt that would have to be repaid with interest. However, 18% of respondents planned to use credit reward dollars, points, or miles.

If you do plan to use a credit card for your holiday shopping, consider utilizing it the old-fashioned way: in brick-and-mortar stores. Our survey results showed those who did most of their shopping online were more likely to go into credit card debt during the holidays than those who did more of their shopping in-store. In part, this could be due to the convenience and ease of online shopping and the strategic methods retailers use to upsell products online.

‘Tis the Season to Give Responsibly

If there’s anything we learned from this data, it’s that the average American spends a lot of money on gifts, travel, decor, and even food during the holidays. But the joy of giving does not have to lead to financial distress. Proper planning and budgeting, as well as strategic spending on sale days, could lead to a lower-stress, happier holiday for you and your family.

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Methodology

We surveyed 1,017 people who planned to give gifts as part of their observation of Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa in the 2019 holiday season. Those who did not celebrate one or more of these holidays, or give gifts as part of their celebrations, were not qualified for the study.

Participants were asked to recall how much they spent in the 2018 holiday season on holiday-related travel, gifts, decor, and food or drink. They were also asked to estimate how much they will spend on those categories as part of their holiday celebrations this year. Zeroes were not included in averages, as we only included those who spent or planned to spend in particular categories.

The average credit card debt was only among those who went into credit card debt last holiday season – it also did not include responses of zero.

12.9% of respondents were baby boomers, 29.0% were from Generation X, and 55.7% were millennials. 2.5% were from other generations. The average age of participants in this study was 38.5.

Limitations

This study is based on means alone and is for exploratory purposes. The results were neither weighted nor statistically tested. It is not inclusive of all possible holiday-related expenditures or saving strategies. As these data rely on self-report, typical issues associated with self-reporting, such as telescoping and exaggeration, may have occurred.

Fair Use Statement

Know a thing or two about overspending on the holidays? You’re welcome to share the data behind it, so long as it’s for non-commercial purposes and you link back to this page.