NEW YORK -- Jill Bascou looked like a typical holiday gift shopper standing in line on Thanksgiving Day shortly after the Target (TGT) in Marlton, New Jersey, opened at 6 p.m.
Except she wasn't buying for other people.
The 39-year-old was waiting to get herself an iPad. In her cart was the xBox her husband had been coveting, and her father was in another part of the store hunting down a giant, cheap TV -- for himself.
Retailers call this self-gifting. Look at a major store's circular advertising holiday gifts -- from the $5 toasters at Kohl's (KSS) to a $279 Dyson vacuum at Target -- and you'll see the top draws are items people typically buy for themselves.
Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at NPD Group, started tracking the trend of self-gifting six years ago, after interviewing a shopper on Black Friday at a Macy's (M).
The woman had a huge pile of clothes over one arm and a smaller pile on her other. Cohen was surprised to learn that woman was buying the big pile for herself. Her mother and sister were the designated recipients of the other pile.
Now 30 percent of purchases over the Thanksgiving holiday are attributed to self-gifting, Cohen says. Surveys from the National Retail Federation bear this out, showing that 77 percent of shoppers took advantage of discounts to buy for themselves over the holiday weekend.
Toys are the obvious exception, but almost everything else -- the TVs, the home goods, even the clothing -- are items that people are often buying for themselves.
Retailers have been catching on, adjusting inventories and messaging. Kathy Grannis, spokesperson for the NRF, points to a pop-up gift tag ad recently on Gap's (GPS) website that read "From Us to You," and was clearly meant to engage self-gifters.
For clothing retailers, Grannis says the enticements to shoppers are often in the form of a significant discount off the whole store. Old Navy offered half off everything on Thanksgiving Day, which drew Sarita Henriquez, 36, of Burlington, New Jersey, to shop for herself, with no set spending limit in mind.
Greed Is Good
"I'm being greedy this year," Henriquez said as she waited in her car for the store to open at 4 p.m.
"I hear self-gifting reported as greediness, but there's really more nuance than that," says Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and author of "Decoding the New Consumer Mind."
Yarrow breaks down self-gifting holiday shoppers to three types: those buying special things like outfits and decor in order to be more social; those delaying purchases because they are expecting bargains and those who are buying on impulse based on what's available.
Impulse buyers are the key target for retailers' special doorbusters. These are folks like the Hartman brothers, (Ed, 25, Shawn, 24, and Tyler, 21) who, while visiting family for Thanksgiving, each waited for cheap TVs at a Best Buy (BBY) near Cherry Hill, New Jersey, to put in their own homes.
Cohen's advice for shoppers who missed out on the early sales and are still waiting for big discounts: "Be patient and wait for the price to come to you."
Don't obsess over getting the absolute rock-bottom prices if it means delaying what you want, Cohen adds. You can always return an item if you find it for less and try to get the store to price match -- as long as you have your receipt.
And just wait until you see next year's sales.
"Retailers will figure this out," says Cohen. And then Thanksgiving week will be even more about self-gifting, "and then there will be another set of doorbusters for later in December."
11 Crucial End-of-Year Financial Tips
Why More Americans Are 'Self-Gifting' This Holiday
If you don't already have one, now's the time to establish a traditional individual retirement account or a Roth IRA, and if you're self-employed, a Solo 401K or SEP-IRA. Don't worry if you don't have enough money to fully fund the account. As long as you establish the account by the end of the calendar year, you'll be able to retroactively contribute to it through April 15 of next year, and those funds can still count toward your 2014 taxes.
For 2014, you're allowed to contribute up to $17,500 to your 401(k). (If you're 50 and over, that limit increases to $23,000.) This is the maximum you're able to save per year and still defer paying income tax on that money.
Since 401(k) contributions must be made through payroll deductions, talk to your company's payroll department about adjusting your December contribution or adding a lump-sum amount from your holiday bonus when you receive it. Also, chat with your human resource department to see if it will let you retroactively earmark contributions made prior to April 15, 2015 for the 2014 tax year.
If you're age 70½ or older, you're required to take a certain amount from your 401(k) and traditional IRA each calendar year. If you don't, you could be facing sizable penalty fees from the IRS (as in 50 percent of the amount you should have taken out). To find out how much you should take out by the end of the year, talk to your financial adviser or see this calculator.
You may qualify for a state income tax deduction by contributing to your children's 529 college savings plan.While every state's 529 tax deduction rules and contribution limits vary, most states will accept contributions until all account balances for the same beneficiary reach $235,000 to $412,000. Check with your state to discover your specific limits.
Depending on your financial situation, converting some of the funds from your traditional IRA into a Roth IRA could be a smart strategy. You're able to withdraw the funds from a Roth IRA tax-free, and Roth IRAs are excluded from required minimum distribution rules. Furthermore, if you're ineligible to contribute to a traditional or Roth IRA due to income limitations, you can still contribute to a "nondeductible" traditional IRA and then process what's known as a "backdoor" Roth conversion.
When you sell stocks for a gain, you face capital gains taxes. But you can counterbalance these gains by selling some of your "losing" stocks and writing off the losses. Talk with your accountant about whether this strategy would work for you; if it will, you need to harvest your losses before the year closes out.
Do you have a flexible spending account, or FSA, at work? Check the detail of your company's policy; many are "use it or lose it," meaning if you don't use the full amount in your FSA by year's end, that money will not roll over.
New federal laws permit employers to let their workers roll over a maximum of $500, but it's the employers choice whether or not to allow this rollover. Also, some employers give their workers a grace period until March of the following year to use the prior year funds, while other employers require that the funds are used by Dec 31. Check with your HR department to learn your employers' rules.
Remember that FSA funds can be used for a lot more than just prescriptions and co-pays. If you have money you need to spend before it's gone, you may also be able to use it for things like dental work, glasses or contact lenses, and even some qualified over-the-counter medicine and supplies.
Secure some additional tax deductions for 2014 by donating to a charitable cause. As long as you itemize your donations, you can claim everything from cash donations to goods to used vehicle donations. You can even give some of your stock to charity, thus avoiding capital gains tax.
Just be sure to get a signed and dated receipt from the charity, noting the amount of your contribution -- especially if you're donating goods instead of cash. As an added precaution, take photographs of any high-value donations (over $250).
You may qualify for another tax credit by making energy-efficient home improvements like windows, insulation and roofing. You'll also save more in the long run on your home's heating and cooling costs. To see which improvements qualify for a tax credit, go to the federal government's energy savings website, which lists comprehensive details that are broken down state-by-state.
If you need to enroll for coverage on the healthcare exchanges, you have until Dec. 15, 2014 to sign up for coverage that begins on Jan. 1, 2015. If you're already enrolled in a marketplace plan, you may be able to change your coverage if you've had a qualifying life event, such as a marriage or a move to another state.
You can give up to $14,000 to individuals per year without needing to file a gift tax return. If you're married, you and your spouse can each bequeath gifts of $14,000 to an individual without triggering a taxable event. If you decide to give a major financial gift to your children, talk to your kids first about strong money-management skills. Here's a free guide to help to talk to your kids about money.
Giving a little bit each year can also help reduce your overall estate tax burden (although the estate tax exemption is $5.34 million in 2014, which means few taxpayers will need to worry about this).