The holiday season is stressful, particularly on your wallet.
According to the National Retail Federation's 2011 Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, shoppers plan to spend an average of $704.18 this year on gifts and seasonal merchandise. This is down slightly from 2010's average of $718.98. However, the survey forecasts an overall retail sales growth of 2.8% in November and December to $465.6 billion.
Many consumers are not prepared for the spending surge that comes during this time of the year-particularly the “underbanked,” or those who lack access to mainstream financial resources and services.
According to a recent survey, more than half of underbanked consumers do not have enough money set aside to cover holiday expenses this year.
The survey, from financial product developer Think Finance, questioned 500 adults who play a significant role in household financial decisions, make an annual income below $50,000 and lack access to financial resources.
With 34% of respondents reporting they are "barely getting by" and 39% saying they are "stretched by managing to pay for necessities," it will be a slim holiday for many families. Underbanked consumers plan to spend $500 or less on holiday gifts this year (77%); the same amount plan to spend less on gifts than last year.
But there are steps cash-strapped consumers can take to survive the holiday spending season with their bank account intact and avoid a cash crisis.
Scott Gamm, founder of HelpSaveMyDollars.com, says the first step shoppers should take is to identify who they want to buy for and how much money they want to spend in total. Then they must create a budget by looking at their available funds and calculating how much they have to spend after covering essentials like mortgage and car payments.
"What is the maximum amount you can spend?" Gamm says. "Be honest. Consumers get into trouble in January when that credit card bill comes and they don’t even realize they've spent $2,000 on gifts."
One surefire way to avoid overspending this year is to only pay in cash for gifts. Spending physical cash is a much different experience than swiping a card, says personal finance expert Lynette Khalfani-Cox, The Money Coach. Paying with cash also tends to make consumers spend more judiciously than they normally would.
"You feel like these are my hard-earned dollars. If you use credit, people tend to buy more higher-price ticketed items. If you use cash, you avert those problems."
After determining your recipient list and price point, Khalfani Cox says it’s time to get real about what you can actually spend.
"If you can only spend $50 per person, there's no point in looking at the latest iPad or cell phone, or that cashmere sweater. You have to be really hard and fast with yourself."
Layaway is another way to budget your spending, Khalfani-Cox advises. "You take goods now, pay for them later and it might take three, six or even 12 months to pay it off. When you have layaway you have a finite time to pay it off, so you don't roll over the debt like you do with a payday loan or credit card balances." With that said, Gamm warns that consumers be aware of the fees often associated with layaway plans and to take those into consideration when budgeting.