Holiday shoppers spent much more than expected on gifts

credit card swipeLet's flash back to the beginning of December. The Consumer Reports National Research Center polled more than 1,000 randomly-selected consumers to find out how much they planned to spend on gifts this holiday season. The answer: $699 on average, about $65 less than they planned to spend in the prior two years.

Now, however we have actual totals and they are -- you guessed it -- substantially higher. The average shopper spent $811 – or 16% more than they'd planned – on gifts alone. The half of the population surveyed that paid with credit cards reported spending another $85 more, on average, raising their total to $896. And nearly one-fifth couldn't resist bringing home a little (or not so little) something for themselves.

If there is good news in the survey it has to be the fact that 66% of the credit card spenders say they'll be able to pay back what they owe this month. Bill Hardekopf, founder of, thinks that's likely to be wishful thinking as well. "To me the shocking statistic is that 6% of people last year [10% of those with children] carried their Christmas debt to the following Christmas," he said. "It's one thing to say you'll pay it off. It's another thing to actually pay it off."

So what do you do if you're dealing with a holiday hangover that's a little more wicked than you anticipated?

Here are some tips on what to do with your debt:

Transfer your balance – carefully
. Balance transfers notes Hardekopf, who tracks more than 1,000 cards on the basis of interest rate, grace period, annual fee and other details on his site, are coming back. But what qualifies as a good deal has changed.

"Zero percent for 12 months is gone," he says. "Now 0% for six months is good and for up to 12 months is great." The key words in that sentence? "Up to."

The way these new deals work you apply for the card and you don't learn the number of months you're being granted a pass on interest until you receive your acceptance for the card. If you don't like the terms you're offered, you don't have to take the card at all. (Right now Citi Platinum Select is offering 0% on balance transfers and purchases up to 12 months; Discover More has 0% for 12 months on balance transfers and up to 6 months on purchases.)

And keep an eye out for fees. Balance transfer fees are no longer capped in all cases. Some large issuers like Discover and Chase are charging 5%. You're hit with that fee immediately -- it's rolled into your balance – so you'll pay interest on it as soon as your interest kicks in. On a $2,000 balance, that's a $100 fee. If you're coming from a card where the interest rate is higher than the percentage rate on the fee (and you'll pay it off before you start paying interest) it'll generally be worth it. But if you expect to take longer to pay off your balance, do the math.

Take a credit card hiatus. Say you emerged post-holidays with an $1,800 balance. You could do some quick math and decide that you'll pay back $300 a month and be done by the fourth of July. If you continue using that card, that calculation goes out the window – you'll have to add in your new expenditures to keep after your goal, which means carefully tracking your spending, which gets complicated. (It's worth it, yes, but if it wasn't complicated more people would do it.) In the interim, pay for your day-to-day life with debit or cash.

When you've paid off the balance, save the payments for next year. Let's go back to that $300 example. Six months from today, throwing $300 against your credit card (and not making new purchases) will have become a habit. Rather than falling back into old patterns, automatically have that $300 transferred into a savings account where it can accumulate to fund the holidays of 2010. Then you won't have to repeat this entire exercise next year.

Jean Chatzky, award-winning journalist and best-selling author, is the financial editor for NBC's Today, a contributing editor for More Magazine, and a columnist for The New York Daily News. She is the author of six books, including her newest,Money 911: Your Most Pressing Money Questions Answered, Your Money Emergencies Solved.Check out Jean's blog at and learn more about the Debt Diet Online.
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