New survey shows how we're spending for the holidays ... or not

The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and the Credit Union National Association (CUNA) have come out today with their tenth annual holiday spending survey, and here's what they have found: Consumers aren't going to be spending as much on their holiday gifts as in previous years.

Could there be any news that's less surprising?

Not to knock them for getting this information -- it's always good to have the data on spending, if you're a retail store owner or, I guess, a personal finance journalist. But this isn't exactly a shock.

Still, there is some interesting and even hopeful news. Forty-three percent of consumers said that they plan on cutting back on their holiday spending. It was actually worse last year when the recession was, in the minds of consumers, just a few months old (it had actually been going on for about a year, but when Lehman Brothers went out of business on September 15, and there was talk of a Great Depression, that's really when people recognized we were in trouble). Last year, 55% of American consumers were planning on cutting back on their holiday spending.

But for some perspective, from 2000 to 2007, while people were always saying that they were going to cut back on shopping, the number never went higher than 35%. In 2002, only 21% of shoppers planned to cut back.

And for the first time in the survey's history, consumers were asked if they felt their financial situation was better or worse than it was a year ago. A majority of people said worse (36%), but 19% said that things were better, and 44% felt that their situation was about the same.

The CFA and CUNA also released some tips for keeping holiday debt under control. I'm not sure any of these tips will be new to anyone, but in case you'd like to know what they're suggesting, here we go:

Make a budget and a list
-- and stick to it.

Comparison shop -- so don't just buy what's on your list as soon as you see it; look around, and see if you can find something better.

Pay off debts quickly
-- so use lower-interest credit cards, or even better, just pay in cash.

Next year, open up a Christmas club account.
Sure, that's self-serving advice, since this survey is done in part by a credit union association, but it is good advice. Pay into it every month, and at the end of the year, you get a check with some interest on it, and it might keep you from feeling overwhelmed. I started my first Christmas club account last year. Unfortunately, in my case, I had a cash flow emergency over the summer and had to raid most of it, so that my Christmas club check this year was a whopping $35. But back in August, I was glad I had the money in the Christmas Club to raid.

Be smart about gift cards
-- as in, don't put them away somewhere and forget about them. Some gift cards eventually expire. Stores go bankrupt. Sure, it's nice to save them for a rainy day, but lose them, and you're losing money.

Pay attention to the return policy
--if someone needs to return or exchange a gift, you'll make their lives a lot easier if you've hung onto the receipt and have an idea of what the return policy is. I have to admit, people who get gifts from me are kind of screwed. I'm rarely as good as I should be about hanging onto receipts for gifts I buy.

Find low or no-cost ways to celebrate.The CFA and CUNA suggests drawing names to limit the people you buy gifts for, giving homemade items, making your own gift wrap and organizing potluck holiday dinners rather than making and paying for the whole thing.

Geoff Williams is a frequent contributor to WalletPop.
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