Shop 'Til We Drop: Keeping Financially Sane and Focused Thoughout the Holidays 

The financial naughty and nice of the holiday season

Throughout history, cultures all over the world have celebrated in December. From ancient festivals of light like the Hindu holiday Diwali and the Jewish celebration Hanukkah to the relatively new Kwanzaa and the regional Boxing Day, humans have long found reasons to light a few candles and throw a party during what, in many parts of the world, are the year's darkest, coldest and shortest days.

As time has passed and life has changed, so, too, have the ways in which we celebrate. Especially here, in the United States, where every holiday has become an opportunity to sell greeting cards, decorations and candy. And in that drive to better market the holidays and increase sales, one holiday has emerged as the granddaddy of all December celebrations: Christmas. To Christians, it's the day Jesus was born. To the retail industry, it's a multibillion dollar cash cow.

As this year's push toward Christmas began, the country was not only electing a president but was also inundated with news of a potential economic disaster come the first of the year. Neither were boons to holiday spending, but this year's calendar--with its four full December weekends for shopping--could be.

How are economic forces shaping spending habits this year and what can you do to save a few extra bucks? How can you be a conscientious consumer and what's the best gift you possibly give this year? Boise Weekly has some answers.

click to enlarge Shoppers are out and ready to spend at Boise Towne Square and everywhere else according to early industry estimates. - LAURIE PEARMAN
  • Laurie Pearman
  • Shoppers are out and ready to spend at Boise Towne Square and everywhere else according to early industry estimates.

A Numbers Game

From Halloween to the fiscal cliff, holiday spending speculation is a moving target

Black Friday. Small Business Saturday. Cyber Monday. It's the retail trifecta of holiday shopping that kicks off the biggest surge in consumer spending the United States sees all year long.

Even while boxes of miniature candies wrapped festively in black and orange lined retailers' shelves next to messy heaps of vampire capes and Wolverine masks in anticipation of Halloween, some stores were slyly priming their shelves for the arrival of Christmas. Soon, fake trees and inflatable yard Santas would stand next to festive outdoor lights and the first few strands of garland.

Just as the stealthy red and green rollout began, the National Retail Federation, the world's largest retail trade association, reported that it expected consumer spending on Halloween to increase by about 10 percent per person, driving the overall total spending on the Oct. 31 holiday--including candy, decorations and costumes--to about $8 billion.

Economists looked at increased Halloween spending as a sign of consumer confidence, that Americans were starting to feel less pinched in the pocketbook, and reports circulated that year-end holiday spending was expected to increase by more than 4 percent.

Initial numbers for the 2012 shopping season corroborated theories that Americans were feeling less strapped. Over the four-day Thanksgiving shopping weekend, Americans spent a total of $59.1 billion, almost 13 percent more than last year. Online shopping had a record year.

On Black Friday alone, Americans spent $1.04 billion, a whopping 26 percent more than in 2011, according to digital business analytics firm Comscore Inc. On Cyber Monday shoppers forked over another $1.5 billion.

Recently released data showed that same day across the pond was the largest online shopping day ever in the United Kingdom, with a 32 percent increase.

While those numbers look good from an economic standpoint, some say they may be sugar coated. A proposed 4.1 percent increase in holiday spending is good news, but last year's increase was more than 6 percent. And still other survey results, such as CNBC's All-America Economic Survey, predict consumer spending this year to be virtually the same as last year, up a mere $1.43 on average. Then there's all this talk of the fiscal cliff.

In mid-November, the NRF urged Washington, D.C., to put an end to its fiscal cliff bickering before Black Friday, lest it put a damper on early holiday spending. Then, on Cyber Monday, the White House released a report warning that the fiscal cliff could hurt spending over the holiday season.

In Boise, some retailers say the season was off to a slow start but that numbers are near or above normal compared to last year. Sara McClaran, owner of Indie Made, thinks the slow start was due to other factors.

"My own personal theory is that the election really distracted people so they weren't shopping as early as usual," said McClaran. "I think as soon as Thanksgiving hit, people realized and we're definitely busy now."

McClaran's instincts were correct: Indie Made finished November up 30 percent compared to November 2011, but down 6 percent for the year to date.

Although it's impossible to estimate just how many shoppers took to downtown Boise over Thanksgiving weekend, parking numbers track a portion of that traffic. The weekend before Thanksgiving the Downtown Public Parking garages processed 7,746 tickets compared to 11,177 over the holiday weekend.

One bright spot for not only retailers but those shoppers who wait until this last minute? There is one extra full weekend of shopping in December compared to last year, when Christmas fell on Sunday.

click to enlarge Shoppers at Indie Made are part of a growing trend of buying not only local, but handmade. - LAURIE PEARMAN
  • Laurie Pearman
  • Shoppers at Indie Made are part of a growing trend of buying not only local, but handmade.

Spending and Saving

The financial naughty and nice of the holiday season

Show of hands: How many of you have finished your holiday shopping and have it all wrapped and ready to go? And how many of you are planning to tackle of all of your shopping in one marathon dawn-til-dusk mall trip this coming weekend?

Some holiday statistics claim that as many as 60 percent of holiday shoppers--some holding out for better deals, some just admitted procrastinators--wait until the very last minute to get most of their holiday shopping done. And while that number may be an accurate head count of people looking for that one last gift, just how many Americans wait until the last two weeks of December to start roaming aisles and combing Internet deals? According to the National Retail Federation, only about 3.5 percent of shoppers.

Four in 10 Americans claim to begin their holiday shopping before Halloween with another 39 percent of Americans waiting until November to start spending money on the naughty and the nice. And while it often follows that the longer you wait to get your shopping done, the more stressed you may be as the holidays approach, what you may not know is that your procrastination may also be negatively affecting your pocketbook.

"The absolute best savers are those who can look at the sales and plan in advance," said Leslie Greenman, financial planner and author.

When BW spoke with Greenman in early December, she said the numbers are clear: People who had already started shopping would spend around $699 this year compared the $950 those who had not started would spend.

And come January, when the credit card bills start showing up in the mailbox, there may be some gender differences when it comes to comparing overall spending totals.

Though women may have a reputation for being the big spenders, the numbers show that reputation may not be backed by actual data.

Men and women both plan to spend about $420 buying gifts this year. However, when it comes to just about every other category--gifts for friends, co-workers and pets, as well as decorations, greeting cards and even things like poinsettias--men outspend women. But as Greenman points out, for women, there is often more to shopping than just buying gifts. And that may lead to higher overall spending totals for women.

"Men are in and out of the stores quicker. They know what they're going to buy and they go and get it," said Greenman. "If I go with my son, we are in and out of that mall within 30 minutes because he's like, 'Mom, let's get out of here now.' But if you go with a friend, it can be a half-a-day experience. You go and have lunch, and so that all adds to the shopping experience. And when you buy a sweater for your sister, you say, 'You know what, I'm just going to get one for myself also.'"

Getting one for yourself is called self-gifting and it's another trend tracked by the National Retail Federation. The good news for retailers is that self-gifting is not only up this year, it's at an all-time high.

"Consumers are expected to spend the most on non-gift items in the survey's 10-year history," reported the NRF. Sixty percent of shoppers are expected to spend an average of almost $140 on themselves this year. At least when it comes to self-gifting, younger adults lead the charge with shoppers 25-34 expected to spend more than $175 on themselves this holiday season.

"It looks like young adults have the 'one for you, two for me' mentality about the holiday season this year, which is surprising given that this is also the age group that typically doesn't have the income or ability to splurge," said Pam Goodfellow, director of BIGinsight Consumer Insights, which conducted annual holiday shopping survey, in a release from the federation.

If money isn't an issue, then by all means wait until the last minute, splurge on yourself, make shopping an all-weekend affair, and pull out that credit card as many times as you like. Retailers will appreciate it. The economy needs it.

But if you're like many Americans who not only have a budget but who need to stick to it, Greenman has some advice.

"Having the plan is what is good," said Greenman.

If you can, start in January, plan all year and watch for sales. If not, get creative.

"What I usually do is save up my credit card points for the whole entire year, and then in December, I redeem them for different gift cards. Then, if you attach something like chocolate chip cookies, it adds a personal element to it," suggested Greenman.

If you're one of those people who thinks giving a gift card is cheating, consider this: That same NRF survey suggests you may want to get over that idea. It found that six in 10 people say the thing they would most like to receive this year is gift cards.

But if you just can't bring yourself to give only a gift card, Greenman has another idea. Get the gift card anyway and use it to buy the gift.

When her sister had Pottery Barn chairs on her Christmas list, Greenman redeemed her credit card points for a gift card to the store and used the card herself to purchase the gift.

Greenman has also been known to advise people not to be afraid of the regift. During the 2011 holiday shopping season, she wrote a piece for NJ Family, saying:

"Take an inventory of regifting possibilities. Are there any gift cards you've never used? Any clothes hanging in your closet with the tags still on them? Any gifts you've received in years past that you've never taken out of the box? If so, think about passing them along to someone else."

And if all else fails--you don't have credit card points, you didn't plan all year round, you have nothing to regift--there is one thing you can do to prevent that tug in your gut come January as you tear open the first of your credit card bills.

"When you walk into a mall this year, please walk in with cash to protect yourself from overspending," said Greenman. You can't spend what you don't have.

For some, the 2013 holiday shopping season will start next week, on Wednesday, Dec. 26, when everything from shoes to leftover wrapping paper goes on sale. Want to save 50 percent on wrapping paper next year? Get it at after-holiday sales and store it until next December. Want to be one of those people who save a few hundred dollars on gifts next year? Get out your notepad and start making a list. Then head to the after-holiday sales, cash in hand. Repeat all year long.

Getting Out of the Box

While millions of Americans roam their local malls this holiday season or cross everyone off their shopping lists--largely tax free--from the comfort of their favorite pajamas and a well-worn cushion of their couch, a number of Americans are going local and the crafty ones are going DIY.

From international Buy Nothing Day to local Occupy Christmas campaigns, some people are rethinking how and where they spend their money.

"Small businesses create communities and fuel our local economies," Sarah Mazzone told Boise Weekly. Pennsylvania-based Mazzone runs Made In USA Challenge, a blog where she challenges readers to buy American, buy local, and give DIY gifts whether you've made them yourself or purchased them from a local artisan or crafter.

On her blog, she writes, "Every purchase we make reflects our values, and what better time than the holidays to make your gift buying count?"

In an effort to help consumers make conscious decisions about value spending, Mazzone published 10 Ways to Occupy the Holidays. A PDF of the list credited to her blog is all over the Web from personal Pinterest pages to Facebook pages belonging to local Occupy groups and vintage clothing boutiques.

Top of Mazzone's list is, not surprisingly, "buy American." Further down the list, like financial planner Leslie Greenman, Mazzone advocates for the use of cash over credit cards (see story, this page). In addition to buying local because, as Mazzone said, locally owned "mom and pop" stores are more invested in the community they operate in, she takes it a step further with No. 3 on her list: "buy handmade."

In Boise, Sara McClaran, owner and member of artisan collective Indie Made, also sees handmade as a step beyond simply shopping locally.

"I think Indie Made goes a step beyond shopping local because the things we sell compared to another locally owned store are made locally, which you can't say for a lot of places--most places," said McClaran. "Plus, there's so much love that goes into something handmade that's always a nice gesture, too."

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