Holiday Spenders: Beware of 'Budget Fatigue'


This content is provided courtesy of USAA.

Tired of having to cut back? You're not alone. Lots of consumers are just itching to spend money this holiday season.

By Dan Radovsky, The Motley Fool® for USAA

The past few years have been hard on the American pocketbook — and psyche. Just when we think we see the light at the end of the recessionary tunnel, something happens to make us pull our belts a little tighter and dampen our spirits. Many of us have had to curtail spending for quite some time, and with the holiday season (in other words, shopping season) coming up fast, we're itching just to let go and spend like it's 1999.

But be wary, shoppers, warns June Walbert, a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ practitioner with USAA. Don't let what she calls "budget fatigue" seduce you into spending beyond your means.

"I think people are tired and frustrated because they haven't been able to spend money in the ways that they have in the past," Walbert says. "They want to kick up their heels and have a better holiday than they did last year."

More people do say they plan to open up their wallets this season. USAA's annual survey of holiday spending found 96% of those asked plan on gift shopping. Last year that number was 90%.

And retailers are expecting shoppers to spend almost 3% more than last year, according to a National Retail Federation survey. But that gain would come from an increased number of shoppers, not from individual spending, which the NRF survey suggests will actually decrease by 2%.

Shopper, Know Thy Budget

No matter how much you budget for holiday shopping, you need to be realistic. "I'm sure there are a lot of people who are burying their heads in the sand, but that's rarely a good plan."

She says the way to minimize huge January bills is to make a list and stick to it once you get to a store or online shopping site. "If folks needed to be on a strict budget last year, they probably need to stay on one this year," Walbert adds.

Good advice. But how many will follow it? Not as many as in previous years, according to the USAA poll. Results show the slice of shoppers who plan on budgeting has dropped from 64% in 2009 to 57% this year, and only 43% plan to actually stick to their budget.

Paper or Plastic?

Even with a budget and the discipline to follow it, the payment method you use can affect the actual price you pay in the long run. No matter how you pay — credit card, debit card or even cold hard cash — there can be an extra price to pay.

The hardest hit can come from buy-now-pay-later rationalizing. Almost half — 48% — of those polled said they would pay with a credit card. More than one out of four of those credit card users plan to let their balances revolve for at least several months. High interest rates and late fees could allow their debts to balloon out of control, turning a $30 gift into a much higher priced item.

But not all plastic has that kind of potential. "I love debit cards," Walbert says, "because if you don't have money in the bank, your transaction is not approved." But even if it is approved, that doesn't mean you can afford a particular purchase.

Even if shoppers plan on paying with cash — as 83% of those polled do — out-of-network ATM fees can add up quickly. The average surcharge is $2.40 per transaction. The solution: Avoid ATM fees by staying in-network, or better yet, go with a bank that reimburses for out-of-network ATM fees.

For those who already know what they want to buy, Walbert believes layaway shopping is a good option. "That's the way we purchased things a lot when I was a kid. It allows you to start your shopping early, lessen the financial demands that the holidays bring, and you can still get the gift you want."

There may be a small layaway fee charged by the retailer, Walbert adds, but it's better than paying the interest on a credit card purchase.

Are we there yet?

The bottom line for many holiday shoppers is that it may not yet be time for a blowout celebration, so don't let budget fatigue push common sense to the side.

"I would encourage people to just hang in there and don't overspend for the holidays," advises Walbert." Have a good holiday, but don't go overboard." And that will make for a more pleasant January.

Extra: Did You Know?

Check out these holiday spending facts from USAA's survey:

  • 70% of consumers plan to buy most of their holiday gifts at a brick-and-mortar store, while 17% will shop online or use a mobile device.
  • The top reasons cited for using a credit card have to do with convenience, such as ease of tracking purchases (49%) and collecting reward points (24%).
  • The willingness to carry credit card debt decreases with age. The percentage of respondents, by age, who plan to pay off credit card balances immediately after purchasing holiday gifts is as follows:
    • 18-34: 27%
    • 35-44: 34%
    • 45-54: 37%
    • 55-64: 41%
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