While overall holiday spending is expected to rise by about 4%, according to projections from the National Retail Federation (NRF), the majority of Americans will be spreading their budget out over a lot of less expensive gifts.

Nearly half of Americans (47%) don't plan to buy a gift that costs $50 or more this holiday season, according to a new report from CreditCards.com. On top of that, only a little over a quarter of those surveyed (27%) plan to spend more than $100 on any single item and 12% don't plan to buy any gifts at all.

"I think it's encouraging, because although we might usually think that the more expensive the gift, the better it is, that's often not the case," University of Wisconsin marketing professor Evan Polman told CreditCards.com. "As a recipient, you're usually just as happy to receive an expensive gift as you are an inexpensive gift. There is some truth to 'It's the thought that counts.' "

A person holds out a small gift box with Christmas ornaments in the background.

It's not the cost or size of the gift, but the thought put into it, that matters. Image source: Getty Images.

Who will be getting the pricey gifts?

When it comes to who gets the most expensive gifts we buy during the holiday season, men and women actually have different answers. Men reserve their biggest gift purchase for their significant other, according to the research, and women are most likely to have their priciest gift be for a child. According to CreditCards.com:

  • 37% percent of men said their most expensive gifts will go to their significant other. Only 26% of women say that.
  • Almost half (47%) of women will spend the most on their children or grandchildren, while only 24% of men said that.

Women also appear to be more frugal than men, with 40% saying they will spend less than $50 on their priciest present, compared with 29% of men. And, for those hoping for a new gaming console, a big-screen TV, or something else really pricey, only 9% of consumers plan to spend more than $250 on a gift this year.

Who's buying all those cheap gifts?

Just because someone makes decent money does not mean he or she plans to spend it on expensive gifts. In fact, among those with annual household incomes of more than $80,000, 44% plan to spend less than $100 on their most expensive holiday gift, according to CreditCards.com.

"With few workers getting big raises and the lessons of the Great Recession still relatively fresh, most Americans seem to be planning a frugal holiday -- think sweaters not cellphones," said Matt Schulz, CreditCards.com's senior industry analyst.

Plans can be broken

This report reflectsd what people say they are going to do. That does not mean that they will actually stick to their plans. Since another report showed that 77% of Americans will exceed their holiday budgets, it seems like a safe bet that many shoppers who started with the intention to buy modest gifts will end up not always doing so.

Whatever your budget or holiday plans, it's important to be realistic and set numbers you can afford. That may mean having an unpleasant talk with your kids or even your significant other in order to set realistic gift expectations.

Holiday happiness is not worth longer-term financial ruin. Whether you plan to buy big presents or small ones, having a plan, a budget, and the discipline to stick with them can protect your future.

The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.