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How Much Holiday-Season Spending Pressure Do You Feel?

By Daniel B. Kline - Updated Nov 7, 2019 at 6:25AM

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More than half of us feel an urge to toss our budgets aside when the stores break out their Santa decorations.

Along with good cheer, mistletoe, caroling, parties, and the other joys of the holidays comes the pressure to overspend. More than half of Americans (56%) felt that during last year's holiday season, according to the SunTrust (STI) 2019 nationwide holiday survey.

Among those respondents who said they felt driven to overspend, 66% pointed to gifts as a prime source of that pressure. The food and beverages category (29%) was next followed by travel (18%), new outfits for the season's obligatory social occasions (16%), and holiday home decorations (14%). Based on those numbers, some people clearly felt pushed to bust their budgets in more than one area.

A chart shows the areas where consumers feel pressure to spend.

Image source: SunTrust.

The holidays don't have to mean big spending (mostly)

Halloween is barely over, but many retailers are already ratcheting up their deals and Christmas-oriented marketing. It's easy to see how the oncoming deluge of advertising, nostalgia, and social cues can make people pull out their wallets over and over again -- especially  parents looking to meet or exceed their children's expectations. At times like this, it's important to step back, take a breath, and remember a truth that is easier to keep in mind the other 10 months of the year: Most spending is optional

You may have to go to a family holiday celebration (you might even really want to), which makes the cost of getting there unavoidable. Showy gifts, however, aren't mandatory -- even if some of your relatives behave as if they are. If your financial situation this year dictates that you have to choose between hard decisions and running up a balance on your credit cards that you'll still be carrying when the stores are decorated with eggs and bunnies (or worse, American flags) make the tougher call. Opt for smaller gifts -- or even, for some, folks on your list, nothing but holiday cheer.

"Reducing holiday-spending pressure starts with being honest: with your budget, with your family and friends and with yourself," said SunTrust Financial Well-Being Executive Brian Nelson Ford in a press release. "We know that Americans with high financial confidence are most likely to enjoy the holiday season, and that's why it's important to set expectations on spending limits and have honest conversations with family and friends."

A family gathers around a Christmas tree.

The holidays can be about spending time with people not money on gifts. Image source: Getty Images.

You set your budget and expectations

Retailers are naturally invested in pushing a narrative the holidays are a period when we should all enjoy a good, guilt-free splurge -- buying gifts, indulging in expensive meals, and hosting extravagant   gatherings. Selling the outward trappings of the season is their job.

But you have the right to reject that. Set your own expectations -- and your own sane budget -- for the period that runs from Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, and (if necessary) explain what you're doing to family and friends.

Kids may be disappointed if gifts are scarcer or less pricey than in previous years, but if that's your fiscal reality, it's better to be honest. Going into debt to buy toys and gadgets that may end up forgotten in months or maybe even weeks sets a bad personal finance example for your offspring.

If you and your family have long-range goals that are incompatible with major holiday spending, make that clear. Maybe you intend to buy a house soon; perhaps you're trying to pay down some debt. No matter the reason, it's important to stick to your goals and not let the pressure of the season lure you into poor choices.

Simply being with friends and family during this season can bring you plenty of holiday joy. That's true whether your crew is eating prime rib or pizza, and it's true whether the football game you're watching is on a big new television or the one you've had for years.

Disappointing your kids, friends, or family members may cause some momentary angst. If, however, you're doing it for reasons that make your life better in the long run, then you're being the responsible adult and teaching a valuable lesson (even if it's one that many  won't be all that happy to learn). 

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