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CFA-CUNA Survey: Consumers Unlikely to Increase Holiday Spending
Monday, December 1, 2014 5:55 AM

While all indicators are that the economy is doing much better all the time, more consumers report lower intended holiday spending in 2014 compared to 2013, according to the 15th annual holiday spending survey conducted by the Consumer Federation of America and the Credit Union National Association. 

This year, 10 percent of those surveyed said they would spend more while 33 percent said they would spend less. In 2013, 13 percent said they would spend more while 32 percent said they would spend less. The proportion who said they would spend less declined steadily from 55 percent in 2008 to 32 percent last year before rising slightly this year. (Consumers almost always spend more than they plan to spend, so year-to-year comparisons are most meaningful.)

Despite this expression of consumer spending restraint, signs ranging from a lower unemployment rate to higher stock prices indicate that the U.S. economy is stronger this year than last. Data from the CFA-CUNA survey reveal this economic improvement. When asked to compare their current income with their income a year ago, 27 percent said it was higher while only 21 percent said it was lower.  When asked to compare their financial situation with that of a year ago, 28 percent said it was better while only 24 percent said it was worse. 

"Top-line results from an economic perspective are encouraging and holiday spending almost certainly will increase this year," said Mike Schenk, CUNA vice president of economics and statistics. "However, elements of our survey underscore the fact many consumers continue to reflect significant concerns about their personal finances- most especially in the realm of weak income gains. Because of this we expect the increase in holiday spending this season to be modest."

Schenk also said that only once in 15 years of the survey (in 2008) did consumers cut back on holiday spending from the previous years—despite consumers' annual vows to themselves to cut back. Along with CFA Executive Director Stephen Brobeck, Schenk gives consumer tips on avoiding debt for the holiday season:

  • Decide now how much you can afford to spend and stay within that budget. Staying within budget will be much easier if you make a price list of all gifts and other holiday items you plan to purchase. Even if it's a more general rather than detailed list, it will help you avoid overspending and impulse buys;
  • Make sure your list includes not only gift or gift recipients, but also all projects and activities that make up your holiday. It's easy to overlook extra expenses for holiday food, party clothes, holiday décor, and postage. Examine each item and ask yourself if it earns its place in your celebration. You might discover how much you're doing just out of habit or perceived expectation;
  • You can easily save more than 10 percent on most items by comparing prices at different stores. The Internet and smartphones have made comparison shopping much easier. When shopping online, shop wisely. Be sure you are purchasing from a secure site, and review emailed statements for accuracy as you receive them;
  • Start sooner rather than later because when you delay, you pay. At the last minute, you have to settle for something, and it might cost more than you wanted or planned to pay. After Christmas is a good time to shop for next year's presents. You can find some great bargains right after the holidays. Starting early also gives you more time to find the "right" gift and avoid impulsive decisions, which too often leave you unhappy with your purchase;
  • Use a lower-interest credit card (you'll often find lower rates on credit union cards) and pay off this debt as soon as possible early next year. Don't borrow more than you can repay in several months. Remember that credit card debt is relatively expensive, and if you only make the required minimum monthly payment, you may never pay off the debt; and
  • Ask your credit union or bank to automatically transfer funds into a savings of Christmas or holiday club account each month. They provide a practical way to save small amounts over time, and the discipline of saving reinforces your good budget intentions. Find credit unions you're eligible to join at ASmarterChoice.org.

See Holiday Spending Charts and a Survey Summary

The annual survey was developed by CFA and CUNA and administered to a representative sample of adult Americans by ORC International. This year, 1009 persons were interviewed by landline or cell phone from October 30 to November 2.  The margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points.