Forty-one percent of consumers report they will spend less this holiday than a year ago, with a mere 8 percent expected to open their wallets more, according to an annual survey released Monday by the Consumer Federation of America and the Credit Union National Association.
Of course, retailers aren't ready to concede defeat. They're pulling out lots of gimmicks and sales to entice shoppers into the stores. Many retailers aren't even waiting for Black Friday to officially kick off the shopping season, with some set to open on Thanksgiving Day.
As usual, many of us will wind up spending more than we want, despite our intentions.
"We all tend to give ourselves a pass when it comes to the holiday season," says John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education for SmartCredit.com. "Some people will spend more between Black Friday and the first of the year than they spent the entire previous year."
To avoid damaging your finances this holiday, here are some tips:
Plan ahead Draw up a budget of how much you can afford to shell out during the holiday and how much you can spend on each person. Make a list of what you need to buy before going shopping. Go without a list, and you're more likely to meander through stores, picking up items you don't need.
Also, research prices before hitting the stores so you know whether the retailer is offering you a deal or not.
Keep track While shopping, periodically tally your purchases to make sure you remain on budget.
"Always know where you are with your spending," says Gail Cunningham, spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. "If you overspend on Uncle Harry, you will have to cut back on Aunt Hazel."
If paying by credit card, put all purchases on one card. Spreading purchases across multiple cards can make you feel that you haven't "done as much damage," Cunningham says.
And choose your shopping companions carefully.
"We are often influenced by the other people shopping with us," says Robin McKinney, director of the Maryland CASH Campaign. If you're not as disciplined as you would like to be, shop with someone who is, McKinney says.
No new store credit Retailers will be aggressively pitching plastic this holiday by offering 15 percent to 20 percent off on purchases if you sign up for a new store card, Ulzheimer warns.
And for someone spending $1,000, he says, the idea of saving $200 upfront is compelling.
"That's where the benefit to the consumer ends," he says. "From that point forward, the terms are tilted in the issuer's favor."
Store cards come with high interest rates — 20 percent to 29 percent — no matter what your credit score, Ulzheimer says. And if you carry a balance for a month or two, you will wipe out any discount you received for opening the card.
Even if you don't carry a balance, he adds, opening new lines of credit can damage your credit score for a number of reasons. For instance, your score will drop if you have multiple retailers checking your credit report, and these inquiries will affect your score for the next 12 months, Ulzheimer says.
If you're planning to refinance or buy a new car in that time, he says, you could end up paying a slightly higher interest rate that will add up to big bucks on major transactions.
Prepare for next year When all the bills come in after the holidays, add up how much you spent. Divide that number by 10, Cunningham says. Then, she says, set aside that amount in a savings account for the next 10 months so that when the holiday season comes around again, you'll have money in the bank to pay for it.