How To Budget For Holiday Shopping When The Season Is Now Twice As Long

After more than half a year living in pandemic mode, it’s obvious that this holiday season is going to look a little different. 

The pandemic has forced big retailers to make big changes to their holiday sales cycle, which will change how we shop this year. Amazon delayed its summer shopping holiday, Prime Day, due to the pandemic, then announced it for October 13 and 14. Large retailers like Walmart and Target followed, announcing similar sales to take place around the same time. 

Some stores have announced they will offer deals at the level of Black Friday savings throughout November and December to reduce crowding and make sure customers get their shipped orders in time.

That stretches the holiday shopping season to 10 weeks, compared to a “normal” year when holiday sales ramp up around mid-November. This extra time may be helpful if you like to plan ahead and have a well-prepared budget. But what if your finances have changed dramatically this year? How can you approach this longer-than-usual holiday shopping season to make it work for you?

Forbes Advisor talked to a few experts to help you make sense of the ways holiday shopping will be different this year—and how you can protect your wallet from the temptation to overspend.

Why Retailers Are Stretching The Season

Brands have actually been nudging the holiday shopping season to last longer for years—and it’s in part due to the way consumers plan during this part of the year. 

“Each year about 40 percent of consumers begin their holiday shopping before Halloween,” said Katherine Cullen, senior director of industry and consumer insights at the National Retail Federation. 

A key difference this year is that retailers are announcing their holiday shopping options and precautions to shoppers as early as possible to help them plan. “Retailers are stocking their holiday merchandise earlier and jump-starting their seasonal promotions and deals so consumers can shop safely and shop earlier,” Cullen said.

Many of this year’s sales campaigns remind us that we shouldn’t wait too long to buy gifts, and minimize the risk that something goes awry. “Many people have experienced shipping delays during the pandemic, and might want to order early to play it safe,” said Scott Rick, a marketing professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. 

Blockbuster sale offers once reserved for Black Friday and Cyber Monday may make for exciting sales tallies, but can cause major logistics issues that could curb your holiday spirit—such as pandemic-related manufacturing slowdowns, trucking delays and whether the United States Postal Service will be resourced to cope with the additional strain. 

Longer Shopping Season Can Exacerbate Stress

Your holiday budget may be smaller this year, transformed by pandemic-induced job loss or reduced income. 

Taking some time to shop, especially online in the safety of your home and sweatpants, might be just the thing some of us need right now. “Many people are hurting and in need of distraction,” Rick said. “Retail therapy might help.”

Needing a distraction is one thing. Having the money to start holiday shopping early is another. A survey by professional services provider PwC found that 40% of people plan to spend less on the holidays than they did last year, compared to 14% in 2019. Of the respondents in the labor market (meaning they’re not retired), over half reported their income had been negatively affected by the pandemic. 

The pandemic-caused lifestyle changes and its continuing effect on Americans’ wallets can make it hard to plan ahead for the holidays.

“The idea of celebrating Thanksgiving or Christmas is so low on our list,” said Maggie Baker, a psychologist and financial therapist and the author of “Crazy About Money: How Emotions Confuse Our Money Choices and What to Do About It.” 

It’s hard to see beyond the present for many people, and each layer of uncertainty—from our health, to our finances and beyond—creates more and more anxiety for many of us. “When someone is anxious … they don’t make the best decisions,” Baker explained.

Many Americans are already preparing their finances with an uncertain future in mind. A survey of 2,500 adults released in September by Bank of America found that 57% of people plan to continue reduced spending on nonessentials in the coming months. 

Four Ways To Budget for This Extra-Long Holiday Shopping Season

Just because money may be tight this year doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to have any fun. But financial constraints may require some adjustment. These strategies can help you think through holiday traditions—and how you might adapt them for this strange year.

Acknowledge That Things Are Different

“It’s important to acknowledge that this is not going to be your normal Christmas,” Baker said, to yourself as well as to your family and friends. She explained that our reaction to negative elements in our life can be twice as strong as how we experience positive events. That negativity bias can put a damper on your holiday fun even if you’ve tried your best to keep things jolly. 

Before embarking on any holiday planning and shopping, Baker recommends having a conversation with your family or friends about expectations for the holidays. Talk about what would make you feel better during a stressful time. The answers can help guide how much you can comfortably spend, and prevent misunderstandings with loved ones.

Rethink Your Priorities

If your income has changed during the pandemic, you may not have savings to dip into to finance your holiday fun. “If holiday spending is important to you, can you find ways to save in other parts of your budget and redirect this to your holiday spending goal?” said Amy Richardson, a CFP and Schwab Intelligent Portfolios Premium Planner. 

Richardson said to look for ways to reduce spending, even temporarily, to free up extra cash. Call to try to renegotiate your cable or internet package, or turn to unused gift cards you might have on hand. If you have any credit card or debit card rewards available, you may be able to convert them to gift cards or get cash back. 

It’s also a good time to look for phantom charges, advised Kevin Condon, senior vice president of deposit products at Bank of America—those recurring expenses you may have forgotten about after a free trial ends. Canceling those expenses, however small, can free up a little extra cash. If you use a budgeting app, it may identify recurring subscriptions for you; otherwise, take a look at your latest bank statement to spot charges for services you’re not using.

Adjust The Scale of Your Holiday Celebration

A miniature celebration may be enough to keep spirits bright through the winter. “Consider doing a secret Santa this year instead of buying gifts for everyone,” Richardson said. “Agree on a spending limit, select a name and purchase one gift instead.” 

If you’re not sure how to set limits that everyone will abide by, have a conversation that acknowledges how this year is different and talk about what this means practically. Some people in your circle may need a gentle reminder that not everyone can afford to participate at the same level.  

“If you set some guardrails, it can be fun to live within those guardrails,” Condon said. 

Look For Deals, but Don’t Get Overwhelmed

If you plan to purchase gifts, but want to save as much as you can in the process, be diligent in your research. Obsessing over when you’ll get the very best deal can put you into a price-comparison tailspin—and lead you to window shop for yourself. Extra time researching prices may help you save a few dollars, but it’s not likely to net you significant savings.

Rick noted that it’s hard to outsmart a retailer who seems like it offers a different “deal” each time you turn around. Try not to get too caught up in researching prices and purchasing options. Many of the tried and true money tips like making a list and sticking to your budget still apply here, he said, although leaning toward creative or utilitarian forms of gift giving certainly help too. A handmade gift or volunteering to help a relative around the house can show your gratitude just as well as a store-bought item can.

For online shopping, Richardson recommended installing browser extensions that will compare prices for you to help determine the best time to buy. As for in-store shopping, many retailers will match a better price if you can prove that another retailer is advertising it. 

Remember, retailers are ready to make up the ground they lost during pandemic shutdown periods, so your wallet may benefit from their willingness to move merchandise at a discount.

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