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Christmas: It's Costlier Than You Think

By Selena Maranjian – Dec 17, 2017 at 12:20PM

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Holiday spending is not only more costly than you probably expect -- it can also be costly in other ways that can hurt you financially.

Do you have a spare $34,559? That's what it would cost you this year to buy the whole 12 days of Christmas, from 12 drummers drumming to a partridge in a pear tree, according to the folks at PNC, who maintain the "Total Christmas Price Index," updating it annually.

Most of us are probably not going to buy all those lords a-leaping and gold rings, but we are going to buy gifts for loved ones -- and incur other holiday-related expenses, too. That's going to be a costly undertaking for most of us, too. The average American consumer expects to spend about $709 on Christmas this year, per LendEDU. Even worse, many will go into debt for all their purchases.

wrapped packages against background of old wooden boards

Image source: Getty Images.

Here's a closer look at Christmas spending.

The cost of Christmas

Here are the findings of the recent LendEDU survey, broken down by spending category:

Holiday Expenses

Expected Spending for 2017

Percentage of Total
















Data source: LendEDU. 

Remember that the numbers are averages. Naturally, you might be expecting to spend significantly more or less. Many deep-pocketed people, for example, hire professionals to decorate their homes, with the average cost back in 2012 being about $1,400, according to an Angie's List report. Average those folks with people who decorate modestly or don't decorate at all, and the average came to about $90. With travel, many people will not travel at all, or will just drive a short distance to a loved one's home, while others will spend hundreds of dollars on airfare. Again, while the number above for travel, $84, may seem small, it's an average.

A deeper cost of Christmas

If you can spend that $709 (or whatever you plan to spend) without busting your budget, great. But don't go into debt over holiday spending -- as many will do. The LendEDU survey found about 22% of respondents anticipate going into debt over gifts, decorations, travel, and other holiday spending. Ouch.

That's terrible. Once debt is incurred, it can be hard to pay it off -- especially when it's high-interest-rate credit card debt. Imagine, for example, that you incur $1,000 of debt at a 20% interest rate. If you can pay $25 toward it each month, one online calculator shows that it will take you 67 payments and more than five and a half years to pay it all off, and in the process you'll pay a whopping $662 in interest.

There's an opportunity cost involved, too. Imagine that you're planning to spend $1,500 on holiday expenses this year. That $1,500, then, even if you don't go into debt over it, is money that you can't spend on other, possibly more important financial goals, such as retirement savings. Let's say you get your holiday spending down to $500 and save and invest the remaining $1,000. This table shows how much a single $1,000 investment will grow to over various periods, at 8%:

Over These Years:

$1,000 Grows To:

5 years


10 years


15 years


20 years


25 years


30 years


Data source: calculations by author.

See? You might double whatever you don't spend -- over just a decade. If you're still young and that investment can grow for three decades, it might increase in value more than tenfold!

man looking into open wallet as dollars fly out

Image source: Getty Images.

Make spending hurt less

So what should you do? Well, think twice before spending large sums on the holidays. Buy decorations that can last many years. Rein in gifts -- perhaps by thinking creatively. You might give handmade gifts that cost less than fancy electronics, for example, or simply take time to find less costly gifts that will still delight their recipients.

You might also look into the old-fashioned practice of saving for holiday expenses via a "Christmas club account" at your local bank or credit union. They're not really clubs -- just short-term accounts where you can accumulate dollars throughout the year. You're more likely to find them at credit unions these days, but you can have an unofficial one, too, by keeping track of money you put into an existing savings account, earmarking it for the holidays.

Above all, keep your spending within your means. And if you're interested in any of the 12 Days of Christmas items, stick with the least expensive ones -- the maids-a-milking and the French hens, recently costing $58 and $182, respectively. 

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