‘Things are really hard right now:’ Rising prices make it harder for some families to afford holiday gifts

Higher prices for gas and groceries are taking a toll on Jen Kendra’s finances, and she’s had to make some difficult tradeoffs this holiday season.

Her kids will be getting smaller gifts. The rest of the family won’t get any at all.

Kendra, who lives with her husband and two young children in the Chicago suburbs and works part-time as a bank teller, is paying double to fill up every week at the pump.

“I have seen such an uptick in prices with food and gas,” she said. When she drives by the gas station near her home, she often finds herself screaming at the big signs that list the latest prices.

Kendra describes her family as lower-middle-class. She has started to use coupons more often to buy groceries, and she shops more frequently at discount stores like Aldi to land the lowest prices. Sometimes that means driving longer distances to find cheaper food. “Anywhere I can find a deal or a bargain, I’m trying to.”

Federal stimulus checks have helped her family, but the money dried up earlier this year. Their $550 a month from the expanded child tax credit has also been a boost, and goes toward paying for preschool for their younger son and credit card bills for groceries and gas.

Kendra and her husband saved up to buy a Nintendo Switch for their kids, ages seven and four, but returned it two weeks later because their water heater unexpectedly blew out, costing them $1,500.

“Not being able to provide them with that Nintendo Switch was heartbreaking for me,” she said.

Instead, she turned to Facebook’s marketplace for the first time to buy used toys, and also is getting the kids Play-Doh and Hot Wheels. The couple won’t be exchanging gifts with each other this year or buying presents for their parents and relatives.

“Things are really hard right now,” she said.

Higher prices for TVs and sports stuff

They’re hardly alone. Rising prices are squeezing millions of Americans’ budgets, leading many financially stressed families to pull back on gifts.

Prices rose 6.8% in November from a year earlier, the highest level in 39 years. Grocery prices have increased 6.4% annually, and meat was 16% more expensive in November than it was a year ago, while fish and seafood prices were up 8%.

Energy prices jumped 33.3%, including a whopping 58% increase in gasoline.

But not all shoppers are impacted equally by higher prices.

Higher-income consumers — who have more cash on hand for discretionary purchases — are better able to weather high bouts of inflation than lower-income shoppers, who spend a greater percentage of their income on fuel and basic essentials.

This leaves them more vulnerable when food or gas prices spike, reducing the amount of money they have left over to buy hot holiday gifts like electronics or games or non-essentials.

Although wages are rising swiftly, they still lag inflation.

“Inflation has been more painful for lower-income households,” Bank of America economists said in a research report last month.

Surging prices on essentials will have an impact on budget-constrained shoppers’ spending on holiday gifts, which are also more expensive than last year.

Apparel cost 5% more in November than it did a year ago, jewelry was up 6.7%, televisions 7.9%, sporting goods 8.4%, and furniture 11.8%.

Holiday shopping disparity

Holiday spending is expected to average $1,463 per household, up 5% from 2020, according to a consumer survey from Deloitte published in October.

But the consulting firm predicts huge discrepancies in spending among income groups, driven in part by inflation.

While consumers with an annual income above $100,000 will increase their holiday spending by 15% from last year, holiday spending will tick up only 3% among shoppers who earn between $50,000 and $99,000 annually.

And for consumers making less than $50,000, spending will drop by 22% over this year’s holiday stretch.

“There is a tale of two holiday seasons, with higher-income households planning to spend five times that of lower-income households,” Deloitte said. “The majority of this season’s gains will be driven by higher-income shoppers.”

Many low-income shoppers will sit out the holiday spending season entirely, according to Deloitte.

Some retail chains have recently said lower-income customers are feeling the impact of inflation and have pulled back on discretionary spending.

“Inflation in food, gas, services and other necessities is creating financial pressure on our lower-income customer base,” John Swygert, CEO of Ollie’s Bargain Outlet, said on an analyst call this month. “We are [seeing] that those customers are shopping less frequently just from the mere fact that they have less disposable income.”

Walmart has noted that it’s actively trying to keep gas prices down to attract customers worried about how much they’re paying at the pump, especially as federal stimulus benefits wane.

“Gas prices are a concern….They’re up dramatically versus a year ago,” Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said on an analyst call last month. “The customers had money [then]. And at some point, that’s going to come to an end.”

For Erin Leonards, who lives in southwestern Louisiana, “gas prices are what kills me.” She now spends $50 to fill up her tank these days. “It used to be $30 at most,” she added.

Rising gas prices are squeezing Leonards, who has three young children, ages two, four and six. She is in beauty school and works part-time at a fried chicken restaurant, earning less than $50,000 a year.

Leonards said she bought 18 to 20 presents last Christmas for each of her kids and also purchased gifts for her three godchildren, as well as nieces and nephews.

This Christmas, she is buying only four presents for each of her three kids, telling them to pick “something you want, something you need, something you wear, and something you read.”

Leonards said her children understood when she explained that “Santa wanted to try something new this year” with presents. But she still felt guilty she couldn’t get them as much as she did last year.

Rising inflation on essentials, combined with a pullback in federal stimulus, will also make it harder for budget-strapped consumers to purchase discretionary goods in 2022, Goldman Sachs retail analysts said in a research report this week.

This may impact both retailers that tailor to lower-income shoppers and the US economy more broadly.

Next year, the “consumer focus will likely shift towards [finding] value on key essentials while discretionary spending declines,” the analysts said. Lower-income shoppers “are likely to remain under meaningful pressure.”

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