Most Americans find holiday gift-giving more stressful than taxes

Most Americans find doing their taxes is easier than buying gifts for Christmas during the so-called “most wonderful time of the year.”

Three in 5 Americans chose holiday gift-buying as the most financially stressful event during the year, followed by tax season (24%), birthdays (13%), weddings (9%), and Valentine’s Day (5%), according to a new survey of 1,509 Americans from Marcus by Goldman Sachs. Respondents could choose more than one event.

The stress is so palpable that 62% of them would ditch the gift exchange tradition altogether to avoid the expense and hassle of buying gifts for others this year.

“I think a lot of this stress is due to lack of planning,” said Dustin Cohn, head of brand marketing for the consumer and investment management division of Goldman Sachs. “Many Americans put gifts, travel and holiday expenses on a credit card, and rack up a balance and end up paying high interest rates on those credit card balances.”

Free smartphone apps can help track holiday spending and keep users accountable for overspending. (Photo: Getty Commercial)

Therein lies the pain point for many Americans.

Nearly half of respondents report it’s likely they’ll carry a card balance into the new year because of holiday expenses, and two-thirds of them estimate it’ll take between one and six months to pay off that outstanding debt. That makes their original purchases that much more expensive, thanks to interest charges.

If the prospect of the holiday season is fraying your last nerve, here are some spending strategies for this year and the next.

Stick to a budget

Now is not the time to spend money you don’t have or prematurely spend the holiday bonus before it’s in your bank account. Get honest about your cash flow and determine who’s getting a gift this year and how much you can spend on them. Don’t forget about the costs for wrapping and shipping. 

To hold yourself accountable, use a free budgeting app like Clarity Money or Mint, or go analog and jot down every purchase in a notepad to keep yourself in control. You’ll join the half of Americans who set or plan to set a specific budget for their holiday gifts this year, according to the survey.

Avoid marathon shopping sprees

A boy and his father walk through the toy section of Walmart on Black Friday, a day that kicks off the holiday shopping season, in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. (Photo: REUTERS/Sarah Silbiger)

Stanford University researchers studied the “shopping momentum effect,” observing that it’s harder to pull ourselves away from spending once we’ve started.

Retailers don’t make it any easier, because everything from elaborate window displays to curated in-store music playlists are designed to keep shoppers in the stores and spending. A third of Americans admitted they’re willing to buy a gift even if it puts them in debt, according to the survey.

Leave the store or shut your computer when you feel tempted to make an impulse purchase or your cart’s contents are pushing your budget limits.

Start planning for next year

A shopper leaves Macy's department store with bags in both hands during Black Friday shopping in New York. (Photo: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Procrastinators are gluttons for punishment because they’re likely to overspend at the last minute. Shopping for everyone on your list while on a time crunch makes an already stressful time of the year even more so.

While 1 in 5 Americans didn’t start shopping this year until December, it’s savvy to carry a small piece of the Christmas spirit during the 11 other months of the year. If you see something that is certain to bring delight to a loved one and it’s within your means, there’s nothing stopping you from buying it well in advance of December.

Stephanie is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. She can be reached at stephanie.asymkos@yahoofinance.com. Follow her on Twitter @SJAsymkos.

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