NERDWALLET

2019 Holiday Shopping Report

Even though many Americans are worried about the possibility of a recession, most are still planning to purchase holiday gifts.

By Elizabeth Renter
Nov. 6, 2019

Not much — including unease about the nation’s economy —  stands in the way of holiday shopping in the U.S. Over 223 million Americans (88%) plan to purchase gifts this holiday season, spending an estimated $184 billion, even as many believe we’re bound for a recession, according to a new NerdWallet survey.

Nearly 2 in 5 (37%) Americans believe the U.S. is headed toward a recession. Three in 10 holiday shoppers (those planning to shop for gifts during the 2019 holiday season) — or 66 million Americans — say they’ll spend less due to their perception of the current state of the economy, according to a NerdWallet survey of 2,023 U.S. adults, conducted online by The Harris Poll.

“For most Americans, the urge to spend at the holidays is strong, even in the face of economic uncertainty. But there are ways to spend and celebrate the season without creating additional financial stress at home,” says Kimberly Palmer, personal finance expert at NerdWallet.

For most Americans, the urge to spend at the holidays is strong, even in the face of economic uncertainty.

Kimberly Palmer, NerdWallet personal finance expert

Key findings

  • Economic perceptions will affect holiday spending. Nearly two in five (37%) Americans say the U.S. economy is headed toward a recession, and 30% of those planning to purchase gifts this holiday season say they’ll spend less because of their view of the current economy.
  • Higher prices expected. Nearly half (48%) of Americans believe holiday gifts will cost more this year compared with years past as a result of new tariffs on imports from China.
  • Millions still paying off 2018 holiday debt. Roughly 48 million Americans are still paying off credit card debt from the 2018 holiday season, far more than the 39.4 million who were paying off 2017 debt when we asked last year.
  • Planned spending up slightly. Holiday shoppers plan to spend $825 on gifts, on average, this season, a 6% increase over 2018. With 88% of Americans planning to shop for gifts, that’s roughly $184 billion in 2019 holiday spending.
  • Credit cards and digital wallets poised and ready. Just over 7 in 10 (71%) holiday shoppers plan to use a credit card on gift purchases this year, and 32% will use digital wallet apps.
  • Midsummer sales a big draw for early holiday shoppers. Nearly 1 in 5 (18%) 2019 holiday shoppers completed most of their holiday shopping during midsummer sales.

Many will spend less due to their view of the economy

Mixed messages about the economy lead to mixed opinions. Nearly 2 in 5 (37%) Americans say the U.S. economy is headed toward a recession, according to the survey, while 43% say the economy is currently stable and about 1 in 5 (19%) characterize it as “booming.”

But perhaps more important than their perception is how it could affect shoppers’ holiday spending this season — healthy consumer spending is a boon to the economy. While over half (60%) of holiday shoppers say their perception of the economy will not affect how much they spend on gifts this year, 3 in 10 (30%) say they’ll spend less because of it. For perspective, that’s 66 million Americans who are tightening their purse strings in response to their perception of the economy.

Further, many indicate they believe the money spent on gifts won’t go as far — 48% of Americans believe holiday gifts will cost more this year compared with years past as a result of new tariffs on imports from China.

Women are more likely than men to believe the U.S. economy is headed toward a recession (42% vs. 32%). And female holiday shoppers are more likely to say they plan to spend less this year because of their perception of the economy (36% vs. 24% of male shoppers).

Millions still paying off 2018 holiday debt

Nearly 3 in 5 (59%) 2018 holiday shoppers incurred some credit card debt during the 2018 holiday season, and 35% of those who did say they’re still working to get it paid off, according to the survey. That’s 48 million Americans still paying off credit card debt from the 2018 holiday season. Last year, when we asked the same question, 28% of 2017 holiday shoppers were still paying off debt from the 2017 holiday season.

Only 24% of those who incurred credit card debt from last year’s holiday shopping paid it off with the first statement. “The fact that holiday spending is sending more people into long-term debt suggests overspending is endemic to the season. Unfortunately, it can drag down a household’s finances long after the gifts are opened,” Palmer says.

Savvy holiday shopping tip: If holiday debt is an annual tradition, start a new one. Every year, begin saving for holiday shopping several months in advance, so you can pay outright when it’s time to shop or pay off any credit card transactions with the first statement.

Planned spending still up from last year

Even with some saying they’ll spend less this year, overall anticipated spending is up, albeit slightly. On average, 2019 holiday shoppers plan to spend $825 on gifts this season, 6% more than last year. With 88% of Americans expecting to shop for gifts, the economy could get a $184 billion infusion.

Like last year, Generation X is planning to spend the most on holiday gifts, but they anticipate spending less, on average, than last year, when they estimated they’d fork over $992.

Instead of taking on debt into the new year, use credit cards strategically at the holiday season by paying off your balance each month and accruing cash back or points to help stretch your holiday budget.

Kimberly Palmer, NerdWallet personal finance expert

Most shoppers plan to use credit cards

Despite the fact that some 2018 holiday shoppers are still in debt from last year, 71% of 2019 holiday shoppers are poised to use their credit cards this holiday season, according to the survey. On average, they anticipate charging $660 of their gifts and estimate they’ll take 3.7 months to pay off that balance.

At that rate, they’ll pay roughly $22 in interest over that nearly four-month period, according to NerdWallet analysis. If, however, they make only minimum payments on the debt, it could cost them $239 in interest and take nearly four years to pay off.

Savvy holiday shopping tip: “Instead of taking on debt into the new year, use credit cards strategically at the holiday season by paying off your balance each month and accruing cash back or points to help stretch your holiday budget. You can use your rewards for holiday travel, to buy gift cards, or as cash to help fund other expenses,” Palmer says.

Some will use digital wallets

Roughly 71 million Americans (32% of 2019 holiday shoppers) anticipate using a digital wallet app — think Apple Pay or Google Pay — for at least some of their holiday gift purchases.

Among holiday shoppers, men are more likely to use digital wallet apps than women (38% vs. 26%) for their gift shopping this season, according to the survey. And 2019 millennial holiday shoppers are more likely than Gen X and baby boomers to use them (46% vs. 36% of Gen X and 18% of baby boomers).

Savvy holiday shopping tip: Keep the right card at the top of your digital wallet — one that offers the best rewards for your spending and the lowest interest rate, for example. Some offer additional benefits specifically for digital wallet use.

Taking steps to save

Fewer Americans plan on using coupons and promo codes to save on shopping in general this holiday season than last (48% vs. 54%), but that doesn’t mean holiday shoppers aren’t looking for a deal. Nearly 1 in 5 (18%) 2019 holiday shoppers completed most of their holiday shopping during midsummer sales, according to the survey, and about 7 in 10 (71%) Americans plan to shop on Black Friday, one of the biggest deal days of the year.

Savvy holiday shopping tip: ”Tracking prices and making purchases when they dip, whether it’s months before the holidays or at the last minute, can help stretch your budget,” Palmer says. “Apps like ShopSavvy and browser add-ons like Honey can help you get the best price.”

Most will shop online, some to pick up in store

Though NerdWallet began asking shoppers in 2016 whether they’d be in store or online for most of their holiday shopping, this marks the first year we asked about ordering online for in-store pickup. More than 1 in 10 (11%) holiday shoppers say they plan to order online and pick up in store for the majority of their shopping while half (50%) will order online for delivery and 37% will do the majority of their shopping in store.

One-quarter (25%) of those who plan to shop on Black Friday this year say they’ll order online for in-store pickup vs. 60% who plan to order online for delivery and 50% who will shop in store on that day.

What and whom shoppers will spend on

When asked what categories they’ll be spending the most on this year, the top one 2019 holiday shoppers cite is clothing and accessories (58%). Gift cards was a close second, with 52% saying they’d spend the most on gift cards and leave the gift-buying to the recipient.

“Gifts cards tend to be most appreciated, and most likely to be used, when they are given to a store or a restaurant that the recipient already frequents and enjoys. If you’re not sure, then cash might be a better choice, and there’s less of a chance it will go to waste,” Palmer says.

Some shoppers may be busting their budget to create a special holiday season. Just 8% of those who ever shop during the holidays say they don’t splurge on anyone during the season, according to the survey. 

“There’s nothing wrong with splurging a little at the holidays, but make sure that splurge fits into your broader spending plan so you start 2020 feeling more confident about your finances,” Palmer says.


METHODOLOGY

The surveys were conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of NerdWallet from Sept. 12-16, 2019, among 2,023 U.S. adults ages 18 and older, among whom 1,785 plan to purchase gifts for the 2019 holiday season; from Aug. 27-29, 2018, among 2,012 U.S. adults, among whom 1,797 plan to purchase gifts for the 2018 holiday season; from Oct. 12-16, 2017, among 2,135 U.S. adults, among whom 1,883 plan to purchase gifts for the 2017 holiday season; from Sept. 20-22, 2016, among 2,036 U.S. adults, among whom 1,782 plan to purchase gifts for the 2016 holiday season. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For the complete survey methodologies, including weighting variables and subgroup sample sizes, please contact Jessica Ayala at [email protected].

“Holiday shoppers” refers to Americans who plan on purchasing any gifts during the 2019 holiday season.

“Holiday season” refers to the period between Sept. 12 and the end of 2019.

NerdWallet defines generations in the following manner: Generation Z, ages 18-22; millennials, ages 23-38; Generation X, ages 39-54; baby boomers, ages 55-73; silent generation, ages 74-91. When a generation is not listed in the results, it’s due to a small reporting base and cannot be considered a representative sample.

When asked whether respondents plan to use a credit card for holiday shopping, the 2017 and 2018 survey question type and phrasing changed year over year.  

Total spending, total anticipated credit card charges, the number of Americans still paying for 2018 holiday shopping credit card debt, and those planning to shop, use credit cards and spend less due to the current economy calculated using 2018 population estimates from the U.S. Census.

Credit card payoff estimate assumes 17.14% APR and minimum monthly payments of 3% of the balance or $20, whichever is greater.