Families Cut Back on Spending Plans

Posted November 21, 2007
Updated December 1, 2007

— With a wedding planned for August and a new mortgage to pay, Laura Capp and her fiance don't have a lot of money to spend on Christmas this year. So Capp and Fred Rihn will limit their gift list, try to make rather than buy some of the items they do give and eliminate some holiday travel.

"Luckily, my extensive extended family is also cutting back this year," Capp said. For the first time, her wing of the family in Pittsburgh probably won't travel to visit the Baltimore clan.

"The high cost of gas is a factor," Capp said. "And some of us don't have time off of work - or need to save up the time for other things."

Many Americans like Capp and Rihn are cutting their spending this holiday season, scaling back plans for Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, or looking for gifts that don't break their budgets. Some are trying to take on less debt or reduce the materialism that has come to characterize the season.

Others are being hurt by rising gas prices and the softening job market, said Jim Taylor, vice chairman of the Harrison Group market research firm in Waterbury, Connecticut

A recent survey conducted by the group found that nearly one-third of consumers plan to spend less this year than last. Most say they don't have as much money available, while others cite concerns about fuel prices and jobs, the survey found.

"There's a kind of emotional recession out there," Taylor said. "It's the war, the economy, the falling dollar and a kind of vague sense everything isn't quite right with the world."

Trade groups like the National Retail Federation predict holiday sales will rise a modest 4 percent this year to $474.5 billion. That's well below the 4.8 percent average of the past decade and the slowest holiday sales growth since 2002, when sales rose 1.3 percent, the Washington, D.C.-based group said.

One concern as people cut back on gifts, parties and travel is that they may cross the line from appearing to be frugal to looking cheap.

Mar Jennings, a home decorating and entertaining consultant based in Westport, Connecticut, defines frugal as "buying what you can afford, not beyond your means" and cheap as "buying solely on price."

People don't have to wear frugality on their sleeves, either, he adds.

"It's not necessary for people to say, 'I'm having a bad year so I'm only spending $20 on your gift,'" Jennings said. "I think that sets the wrong tone."

What the holiday season is about, he says, is giving family and friends something selected with care that they'll enjoy.

"An expensive gift is not necessarily a good gift," he said.

As far as Betsy Storm is concerned, the holidays are about being thoughtful - and having a minimum impact on the environment.

"Like a lot of people, we're seeing that we really don't want or need more stuff," said Storm, who runs her own public relations consulting firm in Chicago. "We also want to make an effort to do more recycling, refreshing, reusing."

And to limit overspending, Storm uses only cash, not credit, on her holiday purchases.

One of her favorite strategies is buying used books from a shop run by a suburban Chicago library, especially art books, cookbooks and music books, she said. "I look year-round to find just the perfect match" for family members and friends, she said.

When her daughter wanted a set of "Sex and the City" DVDs, she found them used on the eBay auction site.

"There's a lot of high quality, gently used merchandise around," Storm said. "But you have to be selective. I wouldn't want my family to think I wasn't being thoughtful or selective about their gifts."

Storm also believes in charitable gifts and this year is giving various animals through Heifer International, a nonprofit that provides income-producing animals to needy families.

Money is a little tight this year for Jason and Leah Davis because they're in the process of starting a small business - a dog resort and training center in their hometown of Folsom, California

The Davises are financing the startup with their own money, so they're trying to cut back in other expenses.

"We've stopped our housekeeper ... cut cable service back to network stations," Leah Davis said. For the holidays, she intends to make a lot of the gifts for the family.

Davis said that last year, framed drawings created by her 2-year-old daughter Annika were a hit with grandparents. This year she's thinking of small, personalized scrapbooks of photos, beaded jewelry and homemade place mats. For several of the men in the family, she may try to create CDs of music that reflects events in their lives or things the family has done together.

"It's about the thought and time you put behind it, not how much it costs," Davis said.

And there are ways other than gifts to celebrate the holidays, she added.

"I have a friend whose daughter is about the same age as mine, and we usually get each other gifts," she said. "This year we've decided, let's set a date and go out and be together."



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