While holiday treats give Americans an excuse to loosen their waistbands each year, experts are reminding shoppers that it still is an important time to tighten their belts.
According to the National Retail Federation, the average consumer will spend a projected $704.18 this year. Though that number is down considerably from the 2007 peak of $755.13, it also is up from 2008 and 2009, when the averages were $694.19 and $681.83, respectively.
And while spending can offer a boost to the sluggish economy, it’s also important that shoppers be mindful of their purchases so their holiday decisions don’t leave them in a rut as they start the new year.
At the New & Not Consignment Shop in downtown Hinesville, business is booming for both sales and purchases, according to co-owner Linda Barnes.
"They like to save money in the first place (if) they’re shopping here," she said. The store also has seen a slight uptick in consignments among its 4,500 active accounts.
"It helps; it helps a lot," shopper Patty Santos said about consigning to pad her pocket.
Santos, who still is on the hunt for holiday gifts, said she has set a $25 limit for each recipient and is shopping around to find the best deals.
Her shopping strategy is one employed by many this time of year, but economics and finance experts say that putting a bit more planning into how you’ll spend can lead to great savings.
Armstrong Atlantic State University economics professor Richard McGrath said that shoppers first should decide how much they can spend, then decide how to spend it. This can help people avoid the common mistake of deciding on a dollar amount for each person without considering the total.
"Little things add up," he said. "Wrapping, bows, stocking stuffers — all need to go inside the budget."
James Rogers, senior vice president of the Coastal Bank Hinesville Branch, said shoppers also should make a list of everyone to buy for in advance — and remember that they do not have to give a gift to everyone they know.
"Friends and family know the economy is rough right now," Rogers said, adding that drawing names in large groups can cut costs.
Another shopper, Lois Talbot, said she has trimmed her spending by streamlining her list.
"I’m past that shopaholic, shop-for-everyone stage," Talbot said. "Last year, I decided that was the last time I would do that."
Now, she’s only buying for her immediate family, which has helped remind her about the original reason for the season.
For those still on her list, Talbot is enlisting the help of sales and coupons, she said.
And taking advantage of deals is a great way to stay within budget as long as shoppers are sticking with their lists, McGrath said.
Rogers cautioned that shoppers also should stay away from credit cards to prevent Christmas hangovers when the bill — with interest — comes in.
Additionally, shoppers should be mindful of the costs of shopping, which include time, gas and incidentals like meals and snacks.
"Don’t travel 50 miles to save $5," McGrath said. "It is not a good deal if it costs too much to get there. It may be worth traveling a distance to get a lot of good deals, but you need to weigh the costs."
Rather than purchasing traditional gifts, consider buying people guilty-pleasure items that they likely would not buy for themselves.
"Interesting can be just as effective as expensive," McGrath added. "Your loved ones know how broke you are and will be more concerned that you spent too much than spent too little."
Rogers suggested people consider making memorable items, like framed pictures, cookies and sweets, and McGrath suggested giving someone an experience rather than an item.
"Research shows that experiences make us happy long after objects are forgotten or taken for granted. A memorable day trip will provide greater satisfaction than a more expensive object," McGrath said. "I don’t remember anything I got for Christmas four years ago, but I do remember a hilarious free-for-all when eight of us simultaneously opened inexpensive toys that shot foam balls."
Holiday buying habits also change as families grow and multiply, often calling for an updated agreement on spending expectations. McGrath suggested having that discussion in January and reminding the family about the agreements in October as the holidays draw near.
"When my mother and aunts agreed after Christmas one year that they would focus Christmas on their own grandchildren instead of spreading dozens of gifts across families, everyone breathed a sigh of relief and the holidays became more enjoyable."