Published in: Research | Jan. 17, 2020
By: Maurie Backman
How much money did you spend on Christmas in 2019? If you totaled up what you spent on gifts, food, travel, decorations, and other Christmas-related expenses, would you come in above or below the national average?
To find out how much the average American consumer spent on Christmas 2019, we surveyed 1,496 people to ask them how much they spent, whether they stuck to their budget, and if they went into debt.
Read on to see how you compared to the average!
Setting a holiday budget can help you avoid stretching yourself too thin financially and landing in debt afterward. Among those who bought Christmas gifts in 2019, 56.3% set a budget. Of those, however, only 64% followed it.
The average spending among people who bought Christmas gifts and budgeted in 2019 was $878.21. But among those who bought gifts and didn't budget, the average amount spent was $992.33.
Furthermore, among those who bought gifts for Christmas, 58.4% tracked their spending, and the average amount spent among them was $923.64. Those who bought gifts and didn't track their spending, meanwhile, spent an average of $934.12.
Not surprisingly, 29.6% of those who didn't set a budget spent more than they expected to. That said, 56% of people who didn't budget managed to spend about as much as they initially anticipated, and 14.4% somehow managed to spend less.
But going back to those people who bought gifts and went over their holiday budgets or spent more than expected, here's where things got excessive (respondents could choose more than one option):
Clearly, there are many expenses to consider during the holidays, and staying on budget for all of them is easier said than done. Holiday travel, for example, can be an extremely costly prospect. And depending on how much time and effort you're willing to put in, adorning your home with a tree and lights could cost a pretty penny, too. But having a budget in the first place could minimize the risk of post-holiday debt.
Not everyone puts a lot of thought into holiday spending. Some people hit the stores and wait to be inspired on the gift front, not necessarily accounting for cost along the way.
But the amount that other people spend on Christmas was the product of specific life circumstances, both positive and negative.
Here are some of the reasons people spent less on Christmas in 2019:
On the other hand, some people spent more on Christmas, and here's why:
In addition to these factors, savings is also an important one to consider. Those with healthy savings account balances can generally give themselves more leeway to spend than those without cash reserves.
Many people open new credit cards during the holiday for two reasons: first, there tend to be more offers to choose from. And second, consumers often need a larger line of credit to keep up with Christmas-related expenses.
Among those who either did or didn't buy Christmas gifts in 2019,
It's wise to capitalize on cash back or reward points during the holidays, and 0% introductory APR cards can help you avoid interest charges if you pay your debt off quickly. Balance transfer cards, meanwhile, are a good bet for those who have debt going into the holidays. Opening a travel rewards card can be a strategic move during the holidays, too, since many offer perks like free checked baggage, TSA PreCheck, and airport lounge access.
On the other hand, consumers should be wary about opening store credit cards. These cards are notorious for charging high interest rates, and since their usage is limited, applying for store cards in conjunction with other credit cards could result in credit score damage from too many hard inquiries.
The uptick in spending many consumers experience during Christmas can all too easily result in debt. And that's a troubling way to kick off the new year.
Among those surveyed, including consumers who did and did not buy gifts for Christmas, 21.5% racked up debt in 2019. This percentage is slightly higher among those who did buy gifts -- 22.5%.
As far as paying off that debt goes, 27.5% of people who went into debt have no idea how they'll go about it. Meanwhile, 15.6% will rely on a 0% intro APR card to knock out their debt, but it's important to note that getting approved for one of these cards generally hinges on having good credit to begin with. The same holds true for the 13.8% of consumers who expect to pay off their holiday debt via a balance transfer.
On the other hand, 13.4% of people think they'll turn to a personal loan or other financial product to pay off their debt. The interest rate on a personal loan can be lower than what a credit card charges, and because personal loans are installment loans, like mortgages and auto loans, they don't impact credit utilization.
Finally, 29.7% of those who came away from the holidays with debt in 2019 are relying on a tax refund to pay it off. The IRS generally starts accepting tax returns in late January, and those who file early could get their refunds much sooner than the average American, thereby minimizing the interest they rack up on their debt.
However, not every group of Christmas spenders plans on using the same methods. For example, respondents ages 45 and up were most likely to use their tax refund to pay off their debt (5.35% plan on doing so). But 7.3% of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 said they'd use their tax refund.
Could that be because older spenders have more money saved and are in less desperate need of their tax refunds? We can't say for sure, but it seems likely.
Interestingly, when you plot average Christmas spending by region, you get a map that doesn't sync up with average income by region.
Some of the lowest average incomes are in Southern states like Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas. But the East South Central region spent the most on Christmas -- a full $1,127.58. And although Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Illinois have high average incomes, the West North Central region was the most frugal, spending an average of $714.47.
Is gift-giving just a bigger deal in the South? Are Midwesterners and West Coasters parsimonious? It's hard to tell with just one set of results, but we'll keep this question in mind for next year's survey.
Paying for Christmas can be stressful if you don't plan for it in advance. But here's the great thing about Christmas -- it happens at the same time each year. And saving and budgeting for it in advance could be the key to escaping the holiday debt-free.
Put together a Christmas budget a few months prior to the holiday. Account for key costs like travel, gifts, entertainment, food, decorations, cards, and any other expenses that are likely to pop up.
From there, set priorities. Decide which spending categories are most important so your money goes there first. If you determine that flying out to see family is your most pressing goal for Christmas, you may have an easier time cutting back on gifts or decor if funds become limited once you've purchased your airline ticket.
At the same time, aim to save consistently for Christmas throughout the year. In fact, include future holiday spending as a line item in your budget. If you typically spend $1,200 on Christmas, allocate $100 a month to it, and make sure that sum lands in savings on a monthly basis so it's there for you when December rolls around.
Of course, eking out extra money each month to set aside for Christmas isn't easy, but spending more judiciously throughout the year can make it happen. Review your spending categories and choose a few to cut back on. If you eat at a restaurant one less time per month, skip two rideshares a month, and host a game or movie night at home once a month rather than pay to go out, that could easily save you $100. Do that 12 times a year and you won't have to rack up debt because of Christmas.
Another option: Get a side hustle to boost your income. It doesn’t have to be something you dislike; it can be something as flexible as driving your car for money, signing up to house- or pet-sit, or monetizing a hobby like crafting, gardening, or baking.
Doing so means you won't necessarily have to cut back on spending during the year, but it also gives you a chance to save all the money you need to pay for Christmas ahead of time. And that's a good way to avoid holiday-related debt and make the most wonderful time of the year a lot easier to manage.
To find out how Americans spent money (or didn't) on Christmas, we conducted an online survey of 1,496 people. The survey was distributed through the SurveyMonkey Audience panel on Dec. 30, 2019. Respondents were 54% female and 46% male. The age group breakdown was roughly as follows: 25% 18–29, 23% 30–44, 40% 45–60, 11% over 60.
Some percentages may not total to 100% due to rounding.
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