Despite a whittling away of consumer debt that has been underway since the recession, many Americans are still entering the holiday season unprepared to cope with the expenses that crop up around this time of year.
Think Finance, a provider of payday loans and other financial services for consumers with limited or no access to banking services, recently surveyed 1,000 Americans across all income levels who use various forms of alternative financial services — including payday loans, prepaid debit cards and direct deposit advances.
Although many of these consumers are on better financial footing and optimistic about their economic future this year, the holidays are still a source of stress and strain on their precarious finances, Think Finance said in the poll.
Some 45 percent of those polled said the holiday season brings so much financial pressure, they would prefer to skip it altogether. Almost half said their level of stress related to holiday expenses is high or extremely high.
That’s probably because nearly the same amount — some 45 percent — say they do not expect to have enough money set aside to cover holiday expenses.
Although those percentages are high, they are an improvement over a survey Think Finance conducted last year. However, it should be noted that survey focused only on consumers who earned less than $50,000 and used alternative financial services, while this year’s survey also polled consumers in higher income brackets. That suggests the financial anxiety may be more widespread than it had been in prior years.
Eight-five percent of those in this year’s survey plan to spend the same amount of money or less on gifts this year, with 54 percent planning to spend $500 or less, and 27 percent planning to spend between $500 and $1,000 on holiday gifts.
To make those purchases, about two-thirds of these consumers are looking into various options to help ease the financial pinch of holiday gift buying. Still, they wish they had more options, according to Think Finance's poll.
Some 41 percent planned to use layaway programs, an option that has grown easier and cheaper this year as retailers waive fees and extend the timeframe for making payments.
Yet don’t think of layaway as only a tool for the poor. Half of the consumers polled in the survey who make between $75,000 and $99,999, said they would put items on layaway, and 32 percent who earn more than $100,000 said they did. (Read More: Is It Worth It? A Look at Layaway and Toy Reservations.)
Think Finance CEO Ken Rees said the fact that consumers of all income levels are using layaway shows there is a demand for financial options beyond just credit cards.
“The economy has shown gradual improvement in recent years, but everyday Americans are still working hard to cover expenses making holiday spending particularly stressful,” Rees said.
It’s easy to understand why the holidays are a source of worry when you consider how many Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. About 41 percent said they would only be able to get by for two weeks without a paycheck, while an additional 25 percent say they could only survive a month.
The holidays are expected to only make the situation worse. About 59 percent of those in the survey expect to carry debt with them into the New Year, including more than half — some 54 percent — of those who earn more than $100,000 a year.
Some financial advisers recommend that if you must use credit cards to fund your holiday spending, you should be able to pay it off in two billing cycles. (Read More: How to Avoid Falling Into the Christmas Debt Pit.)
The Think Finance survey comes as more Americans cranked up their use of credit cards in the third quarter, while also becoming less diligent about paying their bills on time, according to analysis of consumer credit data by TransUnion. (Read More: Delinquencies Rise as Consumers Load Up on Debt.)