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Poll: Many millennials and parents willing to take on debt for the holidays

And almost half of those with credit card debt said they'll dig a deeper hole, too


The holidays are a tough time to not spend. They have a way of luring you into buying things you can’t afford. Find out why people go into debt over the holidays and how to avoid it.


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The holidays might mean different things to different people, but most of us can agree that it’s a time to spend.

During this time of economic uncertainty, not everyone is champing at the bit to go into – or add to – credit card debt for the sake of gift giving.

Yet, some still are.

Millennials (46%), parents with children under 18 (46%) and those who are already in credit card debt (48%) are the most willing to take on debt – or go deeper into it – this holiday season, according to a new poll.

The good news is 33% of those surveyed said they plan to spend less in 2020 than 2019 and only 9% plan to spend more.

Ted Rossman, industry analyst for, said taking on holiday-related credit card debt in 2020 feels like adding insult to injury.

While overall spending seems like it will be down, a considerable number of people still appear willing to finance these purchases, he added.

That comes with a hefty price with an average credit card interest rate near 16%, Rossman pointed out.

“You need to resist that temptation – it has been a tough year for so many, so don’t close it by digging a deeper financial hole,” he said.

Here are some other key results from our holiday debt poll:

  • Those in debt are more willing to get in deeper. More than half of cardholders who already carry credit card debt (57%) said they would add to it for the holidays, compared to 29% who don’t carry debt. Of those already in debt, 48% said the holidays justify taking on more, compared to 26% of cardholders who don’t have credit card debt.
  • It’s all about the kids. Parents with credit cards and children under the age of 18 are nearly twice as likely as non-parent cardholders (61% vs. 34%) to say yes to more debt for the holidays. And 46% with children under the age of 18 said the holidays are a reason to take on more debt compared to 32% of credit card holders without children.
  • Hey, big spenders, you’re millennials. Fifty-three percent of millennial cardholders said they’d go into debt for the holidays, compared to 43% of Gen X cardholders and 33% of baby boomer cardholders.
  • Those willing to dig a deeper debt ditch have reasons. Seventeen percent of cardholders said they’d go into debt to make their partner happy, another 17% responded they would do it to make friends or family members happy and 16% said they would add to their debt to make themselves happy.
  • Planned spending is down. A third of those surveyed (33%) said that they plan to spend less on the holidays in 2020 than 2019, up from the 22% who said they planned to spend less than they did in 2018, per a study. In 2020, almost half (48%) plan to spend as much as last year, 9% plan to spend more and 10% said they didn’t spend on the holidays last year and won’t this year, either.
  • Travel and entertaining will be cut back. Only 6% said they plan to spend more on entertaining and travel compared to 34% and 29% who plan to spend less, respectively. Eight percent said they will spend more on decorations versus 29% who won’t, and 11% plan to spend more on gifts versus 24% who won’t.

The survey of 2,369 U.S. adults, of which 2,010 were credit card holders, was conducted online between Oct. 7-9, 2020. See survey methodology.

People are giving significantly more thought to their spending habits

Michael Parrish DuDell, chief strategy officer at CouponFollow, said it’s not surprising that many consumers don’t plan to increase their holiday shopping spend this year.

With a third wave of Covid-19 looming, a high-stakes presidential election and increased bouts of civil unrest across the country, the majority of shoppers – even those who’ve prospered during the pandemic – are giving significantly more thought to their spending habits, he added.

And really, he said, that is what will be the great “decider” of the holiday shopping season this year: consumer response to societal turbulence.

See related: How to save money on holiday shopping

Two distinct shopping patterns are emerging

DuDell pointed out that when you look at the data, there are two distinct shopping patterns emerging: overindulgence and severe restraint.

There are still many people willing to go into debt for holiday spending. Many Americans feel as if they’ve made tremendous sacrifices this year and, as a result, have an increased longing to reward themselves and their families with holiday extravagances, DuDell said.

On the other hand, there’s a substantial group of consumers who are taking the opposite position and approaching the holidays with much more caution.

CouponFollow’s Black Friday 2020 survey revealed, for example, a 67% decrease in holiday spending among consumers who have chosen to avoid seeing family this year in order to maintain social distancing.

“Whether consumers adopt an approach that’s indulgent, restrained or somewhere in between, there’s no doubt that a desire to save time and money will be at the very top of most holiday shopping lists,” DuDell said.

Holidays are the hardest time to get out of debt

 “Over many years of helping consumers get out of debt, we have recognized that our greatest challenge is the winter holiday season,” said Mike Sullivan, a personal financial consultant at Take Charge America.

More clients fail in January when the December charges come due than all the other months combined, according to Sullivan.

“It is also the busiest month for new clients as the December bills push consumers over the edge,” he noted.

People understand that their budgets are tight and that they should not use more credit when they are already deeply in debt; yet the holiday season weighs heavily on them, especially if they have children.

The holiday season means a great deal to many people, Sullivan pointed out, and they associate the time with love, caring and giving.

And many people are afraid of appearing Scrooge-like and feeling socially isolated if they don’t participate in Secret Santa programs and family gift exchanges, he noted.

With both the positive and negative forces working on them, it is difficult to resist the urge to spend, he said, and most consumers understand this well even as they succumb to the pressure.

Less pressure to travel and entertain could reduce spending

The good news in 2020 is that there is less pressure to travel and entertain, Sullivan noted.

As per the survey, many consumers will gladly avoid these things – and there is also likely to be less shopping in malls and stores, which reduces the chances of impulse buying and cash register line add-ons.

It is also likely that many financially challenged consumers will delay even online shopping and will therefore experience product shortages and shipping delays making some purchases less likely, he said.

“Although determined parents tend to find substitute and replacement gifts,” Sullivan said.

“At Take Charge America we are prepared for a January that may be slightly more positive than past years, but one that will still see a majority of consumers with young children spending more than they had budgeted for during the holiday season and using credit to make it happen,” he explained.

Sullivan said the survey’s finding that 48% of consumers with debt are willing to take on more might be a reasonable expectation. However, pending evictions and other challenges could skew this either way.

Additionally, a number of consumers have had credit limits lowered since March, which has reduced their potential for spending.

And those consumers will have less opportunity to use credit, which could cut down on the number who incur holiday debt.

See related: Poll – Most Americans will do holiday shopping from home

Don’t end up with a holiday hangover

We’ve all spent more than we should at times, and the holidays are a tempting time to go overboard.

But you can mitigate overspending using several tactics:

  • You may have heard this before, but the easiest way is to set a budget and stick to it.
  • Plan your purchases in advance and track your spending.
  • If you have a lot of credit card rewards, use them to buy gifts.
  • If you really can’t afford to buy everyone on your list something and you happen to be crafty, consider making holiday gifts that are personal and special to the receiver.

That said, if you really have to add to your debt, make sure you have a plan in place to pay it off after the holidays.

Last, remember what the holidays are supposed to be about and perhaps gift someone with your time – help a friend by walking their dog, sitting for their kids or running a few errands for them.

Not only will you gain satisfaction by staying on track, but you’ll also avoid an awful holiday money hangover come January.

See related: Beware the aftermath of holiday credit card shopping

Survey methodology commissioned YouGov Plc to conduct the survey. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2,369 adults, of which 2,010 were credit card holders. Fieldwork was undertaken Oct. 7-9, 2020. The survey was carried out online.

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The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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