2021 Holiday Shopping Report

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Written by Erin El Issa
Senior Writer
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Edited by Courtney Neidel
Assigning Editor
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Holiday shopping season is upon us again: More than 214 million Americans (84%) plan to buy gifts for friends and loved ones this holiday season, spending an estimated $163 billion ($762, on average, per shopper), according to a new NerdWallet survey and analysis. This is down slightly from last year’s planned gift spending of $167 billion ($831, on average, per shopper).

NerdWallet’s annual holiday shopping survey was conducted online by The Harris Poll and surveyed more than 2,000 U.S. adults — among whom 1,706 are holiday shoppers (defined as those who have plans to buy gifts for friends and loved ones this holiday season). We asked holiday shoppers about their payment methods of choice and what gifts they’re giving this year, and also dug into how the COVID-19 pandemic is still affecting holiday shopping.

“Even as COVID-19 continues to impact the way we celebrate the holiday season for the second year in a row, Americans are holding strong to some traditions, including spending big on gifts and putting a lot of that spending on credit cards,” says Kimberly Palmer, personal finance expert at NerdWallet. “Americans are also worried about supply chain delays, but that’s not taking away from the momentum behind their desire to shop.”

Key findings

  • Some of last year’s holiday shoppers still carry holiday debt: According to the survey, 29% of those who put holiday gifts on a credit card in 2020 still haven’t paid off their balances. Around a third of millennials (ages 25-40) who put 2020 holiday gifts on a credit card (34%) still have this debt.

  • Most holiday shoppers will charge gifts to their credit card: Three-quarters of 2021 holiday shoppers (75%) will use credit cards to pay for gifts, charging $620, on average.

  • Some holiday shoppers plan to pay for holiday gifts with buy now, pay later services: About 1 in 5 holiday shoppers (18%) say they’ll use buy now, pay later services to pay for gifts this year; this is true for 36% of millennial shoppers, the survey shows.

  • Some holiday shoppers are keeping their holiday spending in their community: More than a third of holiday shoppers (35%) say they’ll shop more for holiday gifts at local/small businesses this year to support their community.

  • Supply chain issues are a rising concern: The survey found that nearly 7 in 10 holiday shoppers (68%) anticipate supply issues this year that would cause the big-ticket items they’re looking for to be unavailable. This is up from last year, when 58% of holiday shoppers had this concern.

Millions still carrying last year’s holiday shopping debt

Lingering holiday debt from 2020 may be putting a damper on this year’s festivities for some Americans. The survey found that 29% of last year’s holiday shoppers who put holiday gift purchases on a credit card — or more than 35 million Americans — still haven’t paid off these balances. Of millennials who put holiday gifts on a credit card last year, 34% still carry this debt.

That said, most of those who used credit cards last holiday season have since paid these balances off. According to our survey, more than half of 2020 holiday shoppers incurred credit card debt on gifts (54%) and they took 2.2 months, on average, to pay it off. Nearly 3 in 10 of those who put holiday gifts on a credit card last year (28%) paid the debt off with the first credit card statement.

Notably, when we asked 2020 holiday shoppers last year planning to incur credit card debt how long it would take them to pay it off, 37% had said they’d pay it off with the first statement, indicating that things don’t always go according to plan.

Savvy shopping strategy: Before you start this year’s holiday shopping, examine how long it took you to pay off any debt from last year’s gifts. Look back at prior credit card statements if you aren’t sure. Putting gifts on a credit card can be a smart move if you’re paying them off with the first statement — you can get the perks, like rewards and purchase protection, while avoiding the interest charges — but carrying this debt beyond that can be costly. It may make sense to adjust your 2021 holiday shopping budget if you found that you overspent last year.

“Carrying credit card debt into the new year can create a lot of stress; cutting back on your gift list now and shopping around for the best deals can help you reduce or even eliminate that debt,” Palmer says. “If you’re heading into this holiday season while still paying off debt accumulated from last year, first make a plan to pay it off, either by starting with the highest interest rate card or with the card that has the smallest balance first.”

Gift buying expected to result in over $2.8 billion in interest charges

Credit cards are a popular planned payment method for 2021 holiday shopping. Three-quarters of holiday shoppers (75%) say they’ll use credit cards to pay for their gifts this year, charging $620, on average. That’s close to $100 billion in credit card spending for gifts this holiday season.

Using credit cards to pay for gifts is a good option for those who won’t incur interest charges on these purchases: 37% of those who plan to use credit cards for holiday gifts say they’ll pay off the balance with the first statement. But others plan to carry the debt for longer.

On average, those putting gifts on credit cards say it will take them three months to pay off these charges. According to NerdWallet analysis, this will cost them almost $18 in interest, on average, or a total of more than $2.8 billion in interest charges.

Savvy shopping strategy: Using credit cards for gift purchases to earn rewards makes sense, but only if you’re avoiding interest charges. It’s important to create a gift-giving budget and stick to it, regardless of your payment methods.

“One way to keep yourself on track is to make a list of the people you want to buy gifts for along with how much you want to spend,” Palmer says. “Staying organized can help keep you from spending more than you intended to, or from accidentally buying multiple gifts for the same person. If buying a gift at a store would strain your budget, then homemade gifts or gifts of time together can make great substitutes.”

Some using buy now, pay later services this year

While 15% of holiday shoppers plan to charge all of their gift purchases to credit cards, others say they’ll use cash (71%), savings (29%) or buy now, pay later services (18%) instead of, or in addition to, credit cards. Millennials are especially interested in using buy now, pay later services this holiday season: 36% of millennial holiday shoppers say they’ll pay for gifts this way, compared with 22% of Generation Z shoppers (ages 18-24), 18% of Generation X shoppers (ages 41-56) and 3% of baby boomer shoppers (ages 57-75).

Buy now, pay later services allow a shopper to pay for a purchase in smaller, equal installments. Depending on the service you use — some popular options are Affirm, Klarna and Afterpay — your options for installment payments could vary. One popular option for smaller purchases is “Pay in 4.” Pay in 4 is usually interest-free, and requires a 25% deposit, with the remaining three equal payments owed every two weeks.

You might also have the option to stretch a buy now, pay later plan out over several months or even years. However, you will likely have to pay interest on these longer plans. For those interested in using buy now, pay later services, there is usually an option at checkout for your online retailer of choice. Your credit card issuer may also offer its own version of buy now, pay later. 

Savvy shopping strategy: We don’t typically recommend using buy now, pay later services for nonessential purchases, but if you decide to do so, look for plans with 0% interest and keep track of how much you’re spending so you stay within your budget. Also, it’s smart to set up automatic payments to avoid any late fees that may come with these plans.

Buying local a priority for many this holiday season

Online shopping continues to be the way most Americans prefer to shop for holiday gifts. This year, about two-thirds of holiday shoppers (66%) will do the majority of their gift shopping online, while 33% will do the majority of their shopping in-store. Similarly, of the two-thirds of Americans (67%) who plan to shop on Black Friday this year, most will shop online (77%) with fewer shopping in-store (39%) on that chaotic day.

In terms of which gifts holiday shoppers are planning to pick up this year, gift cards (53%) and clothing/accessories (52%) top the list of presents that gift givers plan to spend the most on.

Some gift givers have an eye toward boosting their community while holiday shopping. More than one-third of holiday shoppers (35%) say they’ll shop more for holiday gifts at local/small businesses this year to support their community.

Savvy shopping strategy: If you’re one of the millions of holiday shoppers interested in buying gifts locally this year, find out what your town is doing for Small Business Saturday. Celebrated on the day after Black Friday — Nov. 27 this year — Small Business Saturday is a day when holiday shoppers are encouraged to shop at small and local businesses. Some cities have special deals and events on this day to give even more incentives to support your local community.

“You can often find unique gifts at local, outdoor markets and at the same time avoid shipping charges. Taking advantage of discounts and sales on Small Business Saturday can also help you save while celebrating the season and supporting a local tradition,” Palmer says.

COVID continues, as does its impact on holiday shopping

2020 may be behind us, but the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, impacting another holiday shopping season. Supply chain issues are a big concern this year, with 68% of holiday shoppers anticipating that supply issues will cause the big-ticket items they’re looking for this year to be unavailable. This is compared with 58% of holiday shoppers who said this in 2020.

Some Americans are funding at least part of their holiday shopping with money they’ve saved from COVID-related government aid or extra savings they’ve squirreled away during the pandemic. Around 1 in 6 holiday shoppers (17%) say they’ll use money saved from COVID government relief — like stimulus checks or the child tax credit — to fund some of their holiday shopping. The same amount (17%) say they’ll use COVID-related savings, like money saved on commuting and travel as the pandemic has continued.

Savvy shopping strategy: 2021 isn’t the year to put your holiday shopping off until the last minute. Supply chain issues may cause popular presents to sell out early, so it’s a good idea to get a head start on shopping and to be flexible when it comes to your gift-giving plans. Have backup options if your proposed presents are out of stock.

“If you’re flexible in terms of buying older models or versions of the items you’re looking for, then it will be easier to find discounts and availability of products. The newest products that are just hitting the shelves in December are going to be the hardest to keep in stock, and therefore, the hardest to find,” Palmer says.


This survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of NerdWallet from Sept. 21-23, 2021, among 2,063 U.S. adults ages 18 and older, among whom 1,706 plan to purchase gifts for the 2021 holiday season. 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 Sarah Borland at [email protected].

“Holiday shoppers” refers to Americans who plan on purchasing any gifts during the 2021 holiday season.

“Holiday season” refers to the period of time between Sept. 21 and the end of 2021.

We used U.S. Census population estimates and survey responses to calculate the total number of Americans who plan to buy gifts this holiday season, as well as the total gift spending and the total gift spending charged to credit cards.

We used the most recent average annual percentage rate data from the Federal Reserve of St. Louis (17.13% as of August 2021) to calculate credit card interest.