Year-Old Holiday Debt Haunts Consumers

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NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Just when it seemed consumers were feeling festive, last season's debt is showing up on some Americans' holiday shopping lists this year.

According to eCommerce payments company eBillme, 5% of U.S. consumers are still paying for 2009's seasonal spending. Consumer Reports' Holiday Shopping Poll, meanwhile, found that 13.6 million Americans are still juggling debt from last season after being a bit too jolly about their holiday spending. With the National Retail Federation expecting holiday spending to rise 2.3% this year to $447 billion and personal holiday spending to climb from $682 last year to $689, some consumers are buckling down to stop that debt cycle from spinning into 2011.

A combination of big spending, annual percentage rates raised before provisions of last year's CARD Act went into effect and revolving balances on Visa, MasterCard and Discover Cards, among others, may have helped that debt along, but studies suggest a little holiday moderation may help keep balances current. Consumer Reports found that a third of consumers will be cutting back on spending this year, with more saying they'll pay with cash this year instead of credit or debit cards.

Last year, those who preferred paper over plastic saved nearly 10% right off the bat, as Consumer Reports says credit card users spent an average of $892 to the cash crowd's $811. The problem is that cash users are big, fat liars with no sense of restraint. That $811 holiday total was $112 more than they told Consumer Reports they'd originally planned to spend. Of the 36% of shoppers who set a budget last year, 39% exceeded it -- with 5% saying they went way over their limit. If you're going to tighten your belt, consider wearing one first.

That's exactly what eBillme customers did by taking baby steps toward austerity since last holiday season. About 33% paid for last year's holiday purchases in cash, but 39% of those who didn't, paid for their purchases within three months. Since then, 36% of those holiday shoppers used their credit cards online less often in the past three months in favor of non-credit payment options.

Meanwhile, the number of Consumer Reports respondents who say they'll set a budget this year rose to 47%, with 42% of shoppers saying that getting the best prices on gifts is more important this year than it was last year. As a show of good faith, and perhaps a hedge against splurging for the second straight year, 31% of shoppers say they'll cut back on gifts for themselves this year. That doesn't mean they'll actually save the difference, though, as 57% of the National Retail Federation's holiday survey respondents say they'll take advantage of holiday markdowns to make additional non-gift purchases for themselves.

Lingering holiday balances are just one example of how economic uncertainty is hovering over the country this holiday season. Those still carrying debt are among the 61.7% of consumers who told the National Retail Federation that economic conditions would be making their holiday shopping a little less merry this year. Of that group, 81% will be spending less, 40.6% will be using coupons more often and 31.5% will forgo buying new holiday decorations this season. Let that dark, dead section of lights on your porch or in your apartment this year stand as a symbol of your shame.

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