By ALAN FRAM and TREVOR TOMPSON -- Associated Press Writers
WASHINGTON (AP) — If it makes you feel any better, you're not the only one keeping tight reins on holiday shopping.
Fifty-three percent say they expect to spend less on holiday gifts than they did last year, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll released Wednesday. An additional 40 percent say they will spend about the same.
Taken together, that means nearly everybody is restraining the usual year-end urge to splurge on presents. And that is the shopping period that in typical years provides retailers with a huge chunk of their annual sales.
The poll results vividly illustrates how bad economic news feeds on itself. Rising unemployment and tight credit are leading people to spend less, further weakening the economy.
Helen Yi, 26, an insurance agent from Waddell, Ariz., outside Phoenix, says she and her husband, a police officer, are doing well financially. But they are cutting back holiday spending anyway, from perhaps $2,000 last year to about half that amount.
"It's because of everything I hear on the news that the economy is going downhill," said Yi. "I'm afraid my income in the future might go down, so I'm saving more. It puts fear in my mind."
Predictably, lower income people are more likely to say they are trimming their holiday gift purchases. But people earning more are hardly embarking on shopping sprees. Sixty-one percent of those earning less than $50,000 a year say they are cutting back, but so are 47 percent of those making at least $50,000.
The survey found that 7 percent expect to spend more on holiday gifts. That includes April Woods, 51, a homemaker from Akron, Ohio.
She says she always has more friends and neighbors she wants to give presents to, and her husband's income as a delivery-truck driver allows her to do it if they watch their spending during the year. She said she expects to spend about $2,200 on clothes, video games, baked goods and other gifts for family and friends this season, compared with $1,800 a year ago.
"I try to save all year so I can do Christmas right," Woods said.
In another indication that people are trying to curtail their spending habits, just 20 percent said they are using credit cards to pay for their holiday shopping. College graduates, whites and higher earners are most likely to use plastic. About three in 10 said they were using credit cards for holiday gifts in an AP-Ipsos poll in December 2004.
Roughly two-thirds of those using credit cards say they will pay off their charges right away instead of carrying them over — about the same as said so four years ago.
Battered by a recession that started a year ago, retailers expect this holiday season to be one of the worst in a long time. Retail sales dropped by 2.7 percent last month, according to a survey by the Goldman Sachs-International Council of Shopping Centers. It was the worst showing since that index began in 1969.
Fifty-six percent — about the same as in an AP-GfK poll last month — say the low property values that prevail around much of the country mean this is a good time to purchase real estate. Two-thirds of those earning over $50,000 a year, and nearly half of those making less than that, agree now is a good time to buy.
But reflecting wariness over a stock market that plunged to longtime lows last month, just one in three say this is a good time to buy stocks. In November, it was four in 10.
People who already own stocks and who trade frequently were far more likely than those who avoid the markets to say this is a good time to invest.
"I'd have my money some place safe, and real estate and the stock market aren't safe right now," said Wayne Parkinson, 58, an excavation contractor from Rexburg, Idaho. He says that even the many wealthy people in his area — near Grand Teton National Park — are holding off on planned construction of new homes. "It's all going to get cheaper."
The AP-GfK poll was conducted Dec. 3-8 and involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,000 randomly chosen adults. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
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