Image: Holiday shopping
Fred Prouser  /  Reuters
A couple walks by a store offering steep discounts at the Beverly Center shopping mall in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve day. Many people cut back on holiday shopping this year.
Alison
By Allison Linn Senior writer
msnbc.com
updated 1/7/2009 10:36:20 AM ET 2009-01-07T15:36:20

When it comes to holiday shopping, Americans traditionally have been great at saying they were going to cut back — but not so good at actually doing it.

This year appears to be an exception. Concerned about the recession, job losses and a steep drop in investment portfolios, many Americans shunned their usual shopping sprees, despite heavy discounting and promotions.

Early indications point to the worst holiday season for retailers since at least 1970, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. Major retailers are expected to report generally disappointing sales results for December this week.

In early December, msnbc.com profiled four people who had pledged to cut back on holiday spending. As the holidays drew to a close, we checked back with those readers to find out how things went.

Everything but the caroling
There were misgivings, temptations and even a bit of semi-serious name-calling, of the Scrooge variety. But in the end Bruce Bracken and his family stuck with their plan to severely curtail gift-giving and other holiday spending.

As a result, Bracken, of Draper, Utah, was able to end the season without what had become another holiday tradition: credit card debt.

It wasn’t easy, particularly as Christmas neared and the discounting grew steeper and more tempting. Bracken avoided opening newspaper ads and put his credit card in a drawer so he wouldn’t be enticed to break the family’s pledge not to exchange gifts among adult family members. (Bracken did buy gifts for his grandchildren.)

“It was just so new, so different than what everybody had been used to,” Bracken said. “But in the end, it was well received.”

Instead of shopping for gifts, the family went ice skating and rollerblading, visited Christmas light displays and attended holiday concerts. They spent more time and money on volunteer efforts, including a project to provide a little girl with a new bed and bedding for Christmas.

In another break from tradition, Bracken didn’t take the family out for a traditional Christmas meal, instead cooking at home. He said that alone saved him several hundred dollars.

The only thing Bracken couldn’t get his family to do was go caroling.

“My family convinced me that to do so would make other people miserable,” he said. “We have no singing talent in my family.”

Debt-free, and heading to Detroit
The only purchase of consequence Brian Moore has made in the last five months is a plane ticket to his native Michigan, where the car lover will be heading this month to check out the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Moore, an architectural drafter, is going home with a sense of accomplishment: After five months of very frugal living, the 22-year-old Portland, Ore., resident has paid off five credit cards — and destroyed four of them.

“Every single bill I have is paid up,” he said in an interview on New Year’s Eve. “Except for a car loan, I am 100 percent debt-free.”

It wasn’t so long ago that Moore routinely shopped for fun, rather than necessity. But the recession served as a wake-up call that he was overspending, and in August he pledged to cut back.

Even as the holidays grew near, Moore said he found that he just wasn’t that interested in giving up his newfound thriftiness.

“I just ignored everything, and it really didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would, because I was more determined to just get my debt paid off,” he said. “And I knew if I bought something I would probably have buyer’s guilt.”

Moore doesn’t plan to go back to his free-spending ways. Instead, he’s hoping to keep saving so he can afford a few road trips this summer.

“I think I’ve kind of learned to manage my money so well that I just don’t see a need to buy much stuff anymore,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that I’m cheap. I’m just wiser.”

'New Year's of no regrets'
Cristi Harris went into the holiday season vowing to cut her holiday shopping budget by 75 percent, because it seemed like the right thing to do given the weak economy.

In the end, she was able to spend about 50 percent less than she normally would — which turned out be a very good thing after her youngest son crashed their car on Christmas Eve.

He was fine, and she was able to more easily afford the car repairs.

“Because we hadn’t overspent, we could certainly fix it,” she said. “It was far less stressful than it would have been had we overindulged.”

Harris and her husband, who live in Colorado Springs, Colo., stuck with their pledge to avoid big-ticket items for their three grown sons, and to do more family activities over the holidays. Still, they did end up spending more than usual on certain out-of-town family members, and they were diligent about giving money to all the bell ringers they saw during their shopping trips. That, combined with last-minute items like stocking stuffers, meant they didn’t quite meet their original cost-cutting goal.

Still, the budgeting allowed the couple to end the holiday season without adding to their credit card debt, and Harris even had a bit of money left over to buy herself some new clothes at the after-Christmas sales.

The couple’s biggest expenditure of the holiday season was a new puppy they got from an animal rescue group. In a normal year, Harris said, she wouldn’t have felt comfortable getting a new dog, knowing she’d have to pay for expenses such as veterinary care right after the holidays. But this year, the couple felt better about their finances.

“We’re living the New Year’s of no regrets,” she said.

‘It was so totally worth it’
With the recession leaving so many other families in need, Kim Hobin and her husband decided to celebrate Hanukkah in an unusual way: Instead of giving their four children presents, each night the kids picked out a charity to donate money to.

Hobin had hoped the plan would help her kids realize how fortunate they are, and how important it is to share. She said the the payoff came in watching her children sit around the table, comparing the possible charities. Each night, after a discussion, one child got to make the final choice.

“It was nice to observe them discussing the need out there,” she said. “That whole 15-minute exchange, it was just — it was worth it. It was so totally worth it.”

For the most part, the four children stuck to what they know best: kids and pets.

“They want to make sure all the puppies have homes and the children have toys,” said Hobin, who lives in Clemmons, N.C.

The holidays were not totally austere — they still received some gifts from their grandparents and aunts, and they also went on a family ski vacation over the holidays.

“We don’t have stuff,” she said. “We have memories instead.”

Her younger children didn’t seem at all fazed by the fact that their parents didn’t get them gifts. But Hobin said her oldest son, who is 14, was a bit put out after his friends bragged about what they’d gotten for the holidays, and he told them about the donations they had made.

“Everybody had these kind of trophy gifts, and people just looked at him funny,” she said.

Hobin said she would still like to continue the tradition of having the kids make donations over Hanukkah — partly because it means she doesn’t have to do all that shopping for the kids.

“It was so easy for me, I kind of feel a little guilty doing it,” she said.

But she said she’ll probably end up doing a bit more shopping next time around.

“I think maybe next year we’ll do this plus also do a little gift,” she said.

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