There’s a difference between complaining about inflation and responding to it.
With the inflation rate surging to 6.2 percent in October – its highest level since Thanksgiving 1990 — holiday shoppers are about to feel a pinch harder than anything they may have faced in their lifetime as a consumer.
The signs of it are everywhere; 55 percent of respondents to a recent Bankrate.com survey said they were experiencing higher-than-usual prices in October. The global supply-chain issues that have contributed to rising prices also are making certain goods scarce, increasing holiday stress (and ramping prices up further on popular items), and shipping issues are creating pressure to spend more to ensure that packages get delivered on time.
It’s a bad mix for consumers; those without a plan for dealing with it are condemned to suffer the consequences, which run from frustrations that snuff the fun and joy out of gift giving to busted budgets and revolving debt that create a lengthy holiday hangover.
Yet for all the talk about inflation – and compared to what consumers are used to, the current situation feels like a hyperinflationary environment – there’s plenty of evidence that buying habits aren’t changing significantly.
The National Retail Federation (NRF) expects holiday spending to crack previous records, forecasting that sales during November and December will grow as much as 10.5 percent over 2020 to around $850 billion. The numbers – which exclude sales from car dealers, gasoline stations and restaurants – are more than double the average holiday spending increase over the last five years.
The NRF also said that consumers plan to spend $998 on gifts, holiday items and other non-gift purchases for family members and themselves this year, on par with last year despite the supply chain issues.
That level is below the pre-pandemic high of $1,048 in 2019, but the difference appears to be that consumers are planning to spend less on non-gift purchases this year, no surprise at a time when there’s fewer big bargains than in past holiday seasons.
Other than that cutback in discounted items for the family, it appears that Americans are not changing shopping habits.
Given inflation, however, there has never been a better time than now to make some changes to holiday spending habits.
Here are six things that can help to reduce the sting of inflation this year:
Spend more time budgeting – and sticking to it – than shopping.
Come up with a plan, then set about achieving it in the best way possible while staying within your means. Try to fit your best ideas with what you can afford before you start spending; if you find a bargain on one gift, you can spend the savings to cover higher costs on something else.
The wrong time to learn that inflation bit you this holiday season is when the bills come due.
Don’t “have a dollar figure in my head” and then blow the budget like always; this year, that extra spending will feel particularly costly when you tally up after the holidays.
Give gift cards.
This will surprise long-time readers of this column, because I spent years decrying gift cards as something of a mindless solution to gifting, mustering all the emotion and sentiment necessary to fill the space between “from” and “to” lines on a cardholder or an email card with a tight character limit.
Moreover, as much as I love receiving and spending gift cards, they’re really a form of cash; if you wouldn’t give someone greenbacks as a gift — some cultures embrace that idea but most Americans consider cash gifts tacky — then giving something “same as cash” is equally tasteless.
Yet gift cards beat the inflation bug because they put it off on the recipient while retaining emotional power. They satisfy/fulfill your gifting needs and requirements; the dollar amount makes the same statement it has always made.
And because your cost remains the same – a $25 gift card last year isn’t running $30 this year, even if the items it can purchase are now more costly – it helps keep you on budget.
With major brokerages like Charles Schwab and Fidelity and apps like Robinhood making fractional shares available for small dollars, it has never been easier to buy investments for your loved ones. You decide the amount you are spending, and purchase a slice of a company.
Pick something the kids will relate to; consider shares in the maker of a favorite video game or sporting good as a companion to a more tangible gift.
You set the dollar amount; even the most expensive stocks fit into your budget.
Have a Plan B.
There are shortages and shipping issues, and money can sometimes fix them; the “must-have” item shows up at a much-higher price on some other website or in some far-flung store.
Don’t give into that temptation. If what you want isn’t available at a reasonable price, find something else that is. Your loved ones do not want you going into debt to get them a gift.
If it’s truly “the thought that counts,” then think about your options and pursue alternatives rather than getting financially reckless trying to make a Christmas miracle this year.
Eliminate the shipping stress.
Given shipping concerns, there’s temptation to pay up to ensure presents arrive on time. That’s not always reasonable, especially on a budget.
Talk to your family about expectations.
Some people feel that the occasion is ruined if the gift isn’t on time; others are fine with a card – and maybe a picture of the gift that will arrive soon. Work out logistics within your family and you might avoid paying retailers and shipping companies a lot extra to achieve an on-time-or-bust strategy.
Eliminate/reduce the gifts.
If you’re fortunate enough to not need much (or anything), consider the people truly struggling with inflation. They are, in many cases, the same folks who suffered the worst during the pandemic.
Doing a little less for your family and friends but doing more for others generates a holiday spirit that you’ll never get from shopping, especially at today’s prices.
Chuck Jaffe is a nationally syndicated financial columnist and the host of “Money Life with Chuck Jaffe.” You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and tune in at moneylifeshow.com.
Copyright, 2021, J Features