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The Thought That Costs: Americans Plan to Spend Average of $338 on Partners for Holidays, Survey Finds

Nov. 4, 2015
Credit Card Basics, Credit Cards
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Many people love choosing the perfect holiday gifts for their sweethearts, and they’re not afraid to throw money at the task. People who are currently in a relationship say they plan to spend an average of $338 on their significant others throughout the 2015 holiday season, Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, according to an online survey of more than 2,000 adults conducted by Harris Poll for NerdWallet and TransUnion.

The survey, conducted in October, asked about couples’ holiday gift-giving habits, looked at which sex is willing to spend more and examined whether people are willing to go into debt to make the holidays special for their significant others.

Holiday spending by the numbers

For many people currently in a relationship, $338 worth of holiday spending on a partner is too much to add to an already tight monthly budget. The result? Taking on credit card debt to buy the perfect gift. Those in a relationship are willing to take on an average of $200 in credit card debt, according to the survey. Nearly 1 in 3 Americans (32%) say they have used a credit card in the past to buy a gift for their significant other that they could not pay off immediately.

“Sometimes going into debt for the holidays is unavoidable, but make sure you have a game plan to get out of it,” says NerdWallet credit card expert Sean McQuay. “If you need to hold onto the debt for more than a month or two, look into getting a card with a 0% introductory APR period.”

A couple of hundred dollars may not sound like a lot, but holiday spending can add to the already staggering balances many Americans are carrying. The average indebted household had $16,140 in credit card debt as of October 2015, according to a NerdWallet analysis. What’s more, among adults who are married or in a live-in arrangement, more than 35% brought credit card debt into the relationship, according to a June 2015 Harris Poll survey commissioned by NerdWallet. If you’re making headway on the debt you already have, you may be reluctant to add more during the holidays.

“Carrying credit card debt could negatively affect your credit if you don’t pay the balance off in time,” says Ken Chaplin, senior vice president of TransUnion. “Avoid a holiday spending hangover and ensure you are able to pay your debts before spending.”

» MORE: How to pay off debt

Men plan to spend nearly twice as much as women

Your holiday spending plans may be even higher if you’re a guy. Men who are in relationships plan to spend an average of $446 on their significant others this holiday season, while women in relationships are planning to spend $240, the survey shows. Men are also more likely to be willing to take on debt. Among people in relationships, 47% of men are willing to take on credit card debt to buy their significant other a gift this holiday season, compared with only 36% of women.

Men are also likely to spend a larger percentage of their overall gift budget on their significant other than on other family members:

  • Men (28%) are twice as likely as women (14%) to say they plan to spend the most money on their significant other.
  • Women (42%) are more likely than men (19%) to say they plan to spend the most on their kids.
  • Men (12%) are more likely than women (7%) to say they plan to spend the most on their parents.

Millennial couples really get in the spirit

The youngest generation of adults is even more willing to lay down the plastic to wish their significant other a happy holidays. Among millennials currently in a relationship, 28% would approve of their significant other taking on credit card debt to buy them a gift this holiday season, compared with 18% of those ages 35 and over. And 61% of millennials would take on debt themselves to buy the perfect gift, compared with 34% of those 35 and over.

Following the general trend along gender lines, millennial men currently in a relationship are more willing than millennial women to take on holiday-sweetheart debt: 72% of men and 51% of women in this generation are willing to take on credit card debt that they cannot pay off in a single month.

Tips for responsible holiday spending

The numbers show that many people are planning to give generously to their significant others during the 2015 holiday season. There’s nothing wrong with generosity, but it probably won’t make your partner happy if the result is increased financial strain come January.

It’s possible to enjoy your celebrations together without both partners putting themselves in the red to do it. Here are a few guidelines to reduce holiday spending without reducing your enjoyment.

1. Set a budget together

Nobody wants to unwrap a pair of socks while their beloved is unwrapping a new iPad. Agree on a spending limit that won’t strain your bank account — and then stick to the budget. This will also push you to think more carefully about what you want your gift to say about your feelings. Spending less doesn’t mean you love your partner any less.

2. Buy a joint gift to each other

Another way to conquer the temptation to overspend is to consolidate your gift budgets into one. Think of something you’ll both really enjoy, and buy it together instead of getting separate gifts.

3. Opt for experiences rather than things

How many of your holiday gifts from last year do you still use regularly? It can be hard to strike a balance between fun and practical. Think about doing something together this year instead of spending money on more stuff. Book a weekend at your favorite B&B, or buy an annual pass to an arboretum where you both love to take walks.

4. Reduce your spending in another area

If it’s really important to you, pull out the stops when you shop for your honey’s holiday gift this year. But consider cutting back in another area to make up the difference, rather than taking on more debt. Our survey found that 30% of Americans plan to reduce spending on entertainment to pay for holiday gifts this season.

5. Reap the benefits of holiday shopping

Buying presents is a great opportunity to maximize your credit card rewards. “With a little homework, you can get 2% to 5% cash back on all of your holiday shopping,” McQuay says. Choose what’s important to you, whether it’s price protection, extended warranties, cash back or airline miles. If you’re planning to get a new credit card for holiday shopping, don’t forget to look for one with a good sign-up bonus.

6. Pay your credit cards on time

Holiday shopping is fun, but remember to pay back financial obligations in full on time if you do take on credit card debt. As long as you pay at least the minimum by the due date each month, your credit score probably won’t suffer much from your holiday spending.

The takeaway

Wanting to make a big gesture for your significant other around the holidays is understandable. But you may be better off buying your gift strategically so you’re not still paying for it when the next holiday season rolls around. Either adjust your budget to fit in the gift, or spend a little more time thinking of the perfect gift that fits within your budget. Yes, even you, gentlemen.


This survey was conducted online within the United States by Harris Poll on behalf of NerdWallet and TransUnion from October 15-19, 2015, among 2,014 adults ages 18 and older. 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, please contact [email protected].

Virginia C. McGuire is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @vcmcguire.

Image via iStock.