What's going under the tree this year? Lots of bills.

Nearly one in five parents with kids under 18 plan to pile on at least $1,000 of debt this holiday season, with 18 percent characterizing their spending as having “no limits.”
Image: Black Friday shopping
“Some people are already in a risky situation,” said one consumer expert. “If you’re overleveraging on your household budget, it’s money that’s really not there because your income is not going to be able to keep up with it.” Carlo Allegri / REUTERS

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By Martha C. White

Americans are willing to spend plentifully this holiday season — but the biggest gift they give could be to the banks issuing the credit cards on which they plan to rack up debt. Personal finance experts warn that this is risky: The rate at which many borrowers pay off credit card debt is such that many could find themselves financially “underwater” in 2020.

A new Bankrate survey found that 63 of Americans report pressure to spend more than they should during the holidays, including roughly half who feel compelled to overspend on gifts.

“More people probably feel comfortable piling on debt today because a couple of things are happening economically,” said Adrian Garcia, data analyst at Bankrate. “Consumers continue to keep our economy going at the pace it is, and they have a lot of confidence at this point and willingness to spend because they believe in the strengths of the economy."

A new survey from Morning Consult found that roughly half of Americans will keep their holiday spending on par with last year, and the number of people who say they plan to spend the same or more rose by four percentage points over 2018’s survey.

According to John Leer, Morning Consult's senior director of economic intelligence, a rebound in the stock market and continued strength in the labor market are fueling optimism. Some of this willingness to spend also likely stems from an improving outlook about tariffs hurting the economy and driving up prices. As trade tensions have eased, Americans have regained confidence.

There are indications, though, that the consumer spending keeping the nation’s economic momentum going is starting to show signs of fatigue, as consumers supplement slowing wage gains with more debt-fueled spending.

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The International Council of Shopping Centers reported in a survey about Black Friday shopping that people plan to spend an average of $470 over the long Thanksgiving weekend — but that is down from roughly $555 in 2018.

Among survey respondents who told Morning Consult that they plan to spend less, about half said it’s because they’re trying to save more money. About one-third said they were curbing their spending because the prices of necessities have risen, 12 percent said they were worried about job or income loss, and 5 percent said they were worried about the economy.

Among all consumer groups, parents seem to struggle the most when it comes to holiday spending.

According to a survey from personal finance site WalletJoy, nearly one in five parents with kids under 18 plan to pile on at least $1,000 of debt this holiday season, with 18 percent characterizing their spending as having “no limits.”

Bankrate also found that parents are likely to succumb to overspending. More than 70 percent of parents admitted to spending more on gifts than was financially comfortable for them, compared to roughly half of all respondents.

Other studies underscore how pervasive these expectations are — and how they can lead to financial instability. Gadget resale platform Decluttr found in a recent survey that 43 percent of respondents expect to go over their holiday spending budget, and 28 percent expect to accrue debt as a result.

A survey conducted at the beginning of this year about 2018 holiday spending by MagnifyMoney found that more than one in five people who accrued holiday credit card debt said they would only make minimum payments — meaning that most of those borrowers are still paying for their largesse from last Christmas.

As evidence that both confidence and ability to spend might have an outer limit continues to accumulate, other new data suggests that Americans might already be hitting that limit. A new survey from credit education site ScoreSense found that a little over half — 53 percent — of respondents said they had been turned down for a credit card or loan as a result of their credit score.

“Some people are already in a risky situation,” Garcia said. “If you’re overleveraging on your household budget, it’s money that’s really not there because your income is not going to be able to keep up with it.”

“People are really underestimating how much debt they may incur this holiday season when comparing to prior years,” said Yvette Ramos, a spokeswoman for WalletJoy. “That certainly can be risky if it’s approached blindly.”