November 6, 2019
Giving gifts is a time-honored tradition at the end of the year, regardless of which holiday you celebrate. But let’s face it, it can be a costly tradition — and people are willing to go into financial debt to uphold it. [Cue the sad trombone.]
This year, Americans are expected to spend more than $727 billion during the holidays. That breaks down to about $5,654 per household*. But rather than gawk at how much people spend, let’s focus on the real question: Do you have to buy holiday gifts? If you’re like most people, the answer is a resounding, “Yes, you do.”
A Tally survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults age 18 or older, conducted online by The Harris Poll, found that 66% of Americans say they feel socially obligated to buy gifts during the holidays. This is especially true for Millennials aged 23-38 (69%) and Gen Xers aged 39-54 (74%) who are more likely than Baby Boomers aged 55-73 (60%) to say they feel this way.
Nearly 3 in 4 Americans (71%) would still buy holiday gifts even if it meant taking on credit card debt. The proportion of Americans who shared this sentiment was even higher among those who feel socially obligated to buy gifts during the holidays (78%). Additionally, those with credit card debt were more likely (82%) than those with none (60%) to say the same.
What’s driving people to feel this way? Guilt may play a big role. When asked who they would feel guilty about not buying gifts for during the holidays, a majority of Americans cited family (82%), followed by friends (18%), co-workers (9%) and someone else (4%). Only 14% of Americans say no one.
But not all family members are created equal. More men say they would feel guilty about not buying holiday gifts for their spouse or significant other (47%) versus their children (38%). The opposite was true among women: while 47% of women would feel guilty about not buying holiday gifts for their children, only 45% would feel this way about not buying holiday gifts for their spouse or significant other.
Priorities were even more divided among different generations. Around half of Gen Zers aged 18-22 (50%) and Millennials (52%) would feel guilty if they didn’t buy their parents gifts during the holidays. Meanwhile, just over half of Gen Xers would feel guilty about not buying gifts for their children (54%) and their spouse or significant other (52%). Gen Z and Millennials more likely than Gen X and Boomers to say siblings (44% and 35% vs. 23% and 19%).
The weight of guilt may be especially heavy among parents. Nearly 3 in 4 parents of children under 18 (74%) say they would feel guilty if they didn’t buy gifts for their children during the holidays. In fact, most parents of children under 18 (73%) say they would take on credit card debt in order to buy holiday gifts for their children.
On the flip side, many young adults feel guilt to buy for their parents. Around half of Gen Zers (50%) and Millennials (52%) say they would feel guilty about not buying gifts for their parents during the holidays. When asked who they would take on credit card debt to buy holiday gifts for 44% of Gen Zers and 39% of Millennials say their parents.
Much has been written about the proper etiquette for exchanging gifts at the office, but is it really necessary? Only 9% of Americans say they would feel guilty about not buying gifts for their co-workers during the holidays. This sentiment was slightly higher among Gen Zers (14%), Millennials (12%) and Gen Xers (11%). Additionally, only 4% of Americans, and just 5% of those who feel socially obligated to buy gifts during the holidays say they would take on credit card debt to buy holiday gifts for their co-workers.
Say what you will about the consumerization of the holidays, but most people give gifts with good intentions without expecting a gift in return. Nearly 1 in 2 Americans (48%) say: “I typically make the extra effort to give my loved ones something I know they will love.” Just 8% of Americans say they typically only buy gifts for people who will likely give them a gift in return.
Wondering what to give? Among those who feel socially obligated to give gifts, 29% say they typically struggle to buy gifts because they don’t know what to get. While there’s no one way to give a gift, letting people decide for themselves seems to be common.
However you gift, there’s no need to take on credit card debt to get into the holiday spirit. We talked to Tally's personal finance expert Bethy Hardeman and Dr. Reid Cummings, Director of the Center for Real Estate and Economic Development at the University of South Alabama's Mitchell College of Business for tips on how to spend responsibly this holiday shopping season.
Set a budget: Less than a third of Americans (28%) say they typically set a budget before buying holiday gifts, but a little pre-planning can go a long way. Before you make your list and check it twice, figure out how much money you want to spend. Not for each gift, but in total. Then, divide that amount by the number of people you want to buy gifts for. While you’re unlikely to get gifts of equal value for everyone, this per-person estimate will help you gauge how much to spend on each gift.
Set limits and prepare for surprises: Dr. Cummings suggests, "Deciding in advance the answers to the “who” and “how much” questions will work to reduce your holiday shopping stress. Yet, what to do when someone unexpectedly gives you a gift? A meaningful, yet inexpensive response could be to donate in their name. The amount you give is less important than the gesture, as your donation will honor the gift you received and will do others some good at the same time."
Buy early, buy online: Only 13% of Americans say they typically do all of their holiday shopping between Black Friday and Cyber Monday. While some people love the rush of midnight shopping in stores, buying online on Cyber Monday allows you to get real deals while saving time and gas. Even if you don’t get everything done that weekend, make sure you buy before December 14, when many retailers stop offering free or standard shipping.
Buy in bulk: You’re not a terrible person if you gift people the same thing, especially if you know several people on your list would enjoy it. Yet, only 8% of Americans say they usually buy generic gifts in bulk for the holiday season. This will save you time and might save you money if there’s a BOGO (buy one get one) deal.
Make plans for credit use and debt repayment: "Using credit at holiday time is often necessary but doing so should not then become an unmanageable burden when the holidays are long forgotten. Decide in advance how much credit you will use and how long it will take you to pay for it all. Knowing how long you must work to eliminate your holiday shopping expenses can be the reality-check you need to stick to your plan," says Dr. Cummings.
This survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of Tally from October 8-10, 2019, among 2,027 U.S. adults age 18 and older. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables and subgroup sample sizes, please contact .
*To calculate the expected household spending during the holiday season, we referenced the forecast by the National Retail Federation and divided by the total number of U.S. households as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 Current Population Survey (CPS) Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC).