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Holidays on a budget: Shoppers antsy as inflation gobbles up disposable income

With Christmas less than three months away, millions of Americans wish they could turn back the clock just long enough to bank a few extra paychecks.

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Whether you’re whittling your gift lists, nixing big-ticket items or simply toning down the decorations and travel, it seems Santa’s sleigh could be considerably lighter in 2022, but there are strategies to help keep the Christmas cheer flowing.

The big picture:

Consumer concern by the numbers:

  • A 4Over survey of more than 1,000 consumers revealed:
    • 59% are “stressed” about buying gifts this holiday season due to higher prices.
    • 27% plan to shop early in case inflation worsens.
    • 47% said paying full price for wish-list items is an absolute deal-breaker.
  • According to a recent Bankrate survey:
    • 65% of consumers don’t have money set aside for holiday purchases.
    • 27% said holiday shopping will strain their budget.
    • Another 27% said they will go into debt buying gifts.
  • The Bankrate survey also revealed that 10% of consumers began their Christmas shopping before Sept. 1, and half of respondents intend to start before Halloween.

Holiday sales forecast:

The latest forecast from consulting firm Deloitte projected retail sales for November, December and January (when the majority of post-Christmas gift cards are redeemed) will increase between 4% and 6%. While considerably less than the 15.1% reported for the same three-month period in 2021, the 2022 forecast is more in line with where holiday retail sales were trending prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, CNN reported.

Daniel Bachman, Deloitte’s U.S. economic forecaster, clarified in the report that the sharp pullback from 2021 “reflects the slowdown in the economy.”

Meanwhile, Andrew Forman, associate professor of marketing, at Hofstra University’s Frank G. Zarb School of Business, told CNN that 2021′s stronger showing was largely due to the “uncommon circumstances” created by the pandemic, especially the shift to spending on “things rather than experience and the extra cash provided by the stimulus checks.”

By contrast, Deloitte anticipates online holiday spending to increase nearly 13% to 14.3% in 2022, outpacing last year’s 8.4% jump.

Budget tips:

Money-saving expert Andrea Woroch provided CNBC the following four tips to help make the holidays more affordable:

  1. The sooner you start shopping, the better. “Just make sure you are using a gift-tracking app like Santa’s Bag where you can keep tabs on what you’ve bought and for whom you’ve bought gifts for leading up to the holidays as well as how much you’ve spent so you can stay on budget,” Woroch said.
  2. Maximize cash-back offerings. Woroch suggested snapping pictures of your receipts using an app like Fetch Rewards to earn points that are good toward free gift cards at stores such as Amazon, Target or Walmart to offset future purchases or even give as gifts. You can also earn cash back for online orders with Cently or CouponCabin.com, which has a free app, as well as a browser extension.
  3. Consider new credit lines carefully. Woroch recommended researching new credit card offers that include a sign-up bonus or cash-back option, the proceeds from which you could funnel into holiday spending, if your credit portfolio allows.
  4. Examine your recurring expenses. “Think about how you can lighten your monthly spend by reassessing your bills — there’s a good chance you’re paying for things you don’t need,” she said, noting that subscriptions are a good place to start.

What the experts are saying:

  • “Starting (Christmas shopping) earlier could help because it gives you time to spread out your cash flow and find the best deals,” Ted Rossman, Bankrate’s senior industry analyst, told CNBC.
  • “Gifting will remain an important part of the holidays, but consumers will be much more frugal and practical in their gift spending. That means cutting back on gifting to non-family members such as colleagues or friends, so gifting circles will shrink,” Rod Sides, vice chair with Deloitte and head of its U.S. retail and distribution practice, told CNN.
  • “(Consumers) will be keen to ensure they are things that are wanted rather than fripperies that are a bit of a waste of money. Practical gifts will be in, including the gifting of cash and gift cards so that recipients can choose exactly what they want,” Neil Saunders, retail analyst and managing director at GlobalData Retail, told CNN.

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