A recent Tally survey of 2,076 U.S. adults age 18 or older, conducted online by The Harris Poll, found that 63% of Americans say they still feel socially obligated to buy gifts during the holidays. In 2019, 66% of Americans shared this same sentiment, so it is a very small drop. However, this is just generally-speaking.
When asked about 2020 specifically, 75% of Americans say they feel socially obligated to buy gifts this year. Americans who were negatively impacted financially by the coronavirus in 2020 (84%) are more likely to feel socially obligated to buy gifts this year than those who were not negatively impacted financially (67%). Examples of those negative financial impacts include using most or all an emergency fund (18%), losing income (17%), or accumulating new credit card debt (14%).
Guilt seems to be the reason to keep on gifting. Among Americans who feel socially obligated to buy gifts this year, 56% say they feel that way because they want to bring cheer and joy to others during this unusual holiday season. Another 29% say it’s because they want to make up for how disappointing this year has been. Meanwhile, 22% say they feel obligated because they wanted to make up for the fact that they cannot travel for the holidays this year.
Social distancing is also cited as a reason: 32% of Americans who feel socially obligated to buy holiday gifts this year say it’s because they will see fewer family members and friends in person due to social distancing and they feel like they have to make up for that. Another 19% feel obligated to buy holiday gifts this year because they want to do something in lieu of hosting or attending holiday gatherings this year. Just 12% cited feeling this way because they are working remotely and wanting to find ways to connect with their co-workers and/or clients.
For the 25% of Americans who do not feel socially obligated to buy gifts this year, money is the biggest factor: 28% say they can’t afford to do so. Not surprisingly, this was significantly higher (47%) among Americans who were negatively impacted financially by the coronavirus (vs. 20% among those not negatively impacted).
Other reasons for not feeling socially obligated to buy holiday gifts this year were more related to social distancing: 21% say it’s because they will see fewer family members and friends this year, 16% say it’s because they have fewer holiday gatherings to attend this year, while 13% say it’s because they are opting to not host or attend any holiday gatherings this year.
Across generations, there was a notable shift in 2020. More younger adults say they feel socially obligated to buy holiday gifts, in general, when asked this year compared to last year. The opposite was true for older adults.
This year, 71% of Gen Zers (aged 18-23) and 71% of Millennials (aged 24-39) say they feel socially obligated to buy gifts during the holidays. This is up from last year when 64% of Gen Zers and 69% of Millennials expressed this same sentiment.
On the flip side, 64% of Gen Xers (aged 40-55) and 55% of Baby Boomers (aged 56-74) say they feel socially obligated to buy gifts during the holidays—a drop from a year ago when this sentiment was expressed by 74% of Gen Xers and 60% of Baby Boomers.
Most Americans (68%) are still willing to take on credit card debt to buy holiday gifts for family, which is unchanged from a year ago (also 68% in 2019). Those who were negatively impacted financially by the coronavirus in 2020 are more likely to be willing to take on credit card debt to buy holiday gifts for family than those who were not (78% vs 60%).
Interestingly, 15% of Americans are willing to take on credit card debt to buy holiday gifts for their friends, an increase from 9% in 2019. Similarly, slightly more Americans are willing to take on credit card debt to buy holiday gifts for coworkers (6%) than those who were last year (4%). Those who were negatively impacted financially by the coronavirus in 2020 are more likely than those who were not to be willing to take on credit card debt to buy holiday gifts for friends (18% vs 14%) and coworkers (7% vs 4%). This suggests that some people may be trying to bridge connections with gifts this year.
Many parents often feel pressured to make the holidays magical for their kids. This often translates into a mountain of holiday gifts. Nearly 3 in 4 parents of children under 18 (73%) say they would feel guilty if they didn’t buy gifts for their children during the holidays. However, fewer are willing to take on debt to do so this year compared to last. Most parents of children under 18 (68%) say they would take on credit card debt in order to buy holiday gifts for their children (ages 0-18) this year, though it is down from 73% a year ago.
Pandemic or no pandemic, there is no need to take on credit card debt to get into the holiday spirit. Tally’s personal finance expert Bobbi Rebell CFP® offers the following advice:
If 2020 has been particularly difficult or disappointing, it’s very easy to get into the mindset that you need to go big with gifts to make it up to your loved ones. Remind yourself: credit card debt isn’t worth a moment of happiness. If you get tempted, remember that debt will likely bring you more stress!
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.
A great price on an item you don’t need is never a good choice. See what happens if you wait 24 hours. You may not need it after all. Or the retailer may send you an additional discount to close the sale. Most of all: don’t get into a habit of justifying every purchase as “essential” or a “must-get” gift.
If money is tight but it’s important to do something thoughtful, consider making a donation in your loved ones’ names. This could be especially meaningful if it’s a cause that matters a lot to the recipient. The added plus is that you can more easily stay within your holiday gifting budget since you don’t need to reveal how much you’ve contributed.
These surveys were conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of Tally from November 18-20, 2020 among 2,076 U.S. adults ages 18 and older, and from October 8-10, 2019 among 2,027 U.S. adults ages 18 and older. These online surveys are not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For complete survey methodologies, including weighting variables and subgroup sample sizes, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.