Getty Images

According to a new study, Santa Claus would need to leave nearly $60,000 in the average American’s stocking for them to be totally debt-free this holiday season.

The study, from Ipsos and COUNTRY Financial, is an eye-opener for U.S. financial consumers and their outlook on holiday spending and debt — and for good reason. This from the study:

  • 70% of Americans are stressed about the upcoming holiday season, with 32% feeling the greatest stress around holiday finances.
  • However, nearly 40% of Americans are not setting holiday budgets, and 72% are not setting aside money for holiday expenses throughout the year.
  • When asked what would be at the top of their holiday wish list if money was no object, 49% of Americans selected having one of their debts, such as their mortgage (20%), credit card debt (13%), personal loan debt (9%), or student loan debt (7%) completely paid off — compared to 19% who selected receiving a vacation or luxury item.
  • Those who put paying off a mortgage at the top of their wish list said they would need $82,895 in order to be able pay off all of their various debts; those who chose student loan debt said they would need $50,914; those who said credit card debt, $41,159; and those who replied all other personal loans, $16,992.

The report also found that, on average, Santa Claus would need to leave $58,673 under the tree for consumers to be totally debt-free this year — and that’s a big problem for financial consumers.

Money experts say holiday debt is so prevalent because the majority of people fail to plan or budget for these expenses.

“Even though the holidays arrive at the same time every single year, most consumers start to panic and feel pressure to purchase gifts for friends and family without creating and sticking to a budget,” says Clay Zachry, a financial planner with Harris Financial Advisors in Los Angeles, California. “People feel compelled to shower their loved ones with presents.”

“Consequently, the American culture emphasizes spending during this time of the year — it’s assumed that the more you spend, the more you must care for that person.”

Tips to curb holiday debt

What action-oriented moves can you make to control holiday spending, once and for all? Put these money-saving tips in your holiday stocking:

Set a gifting game plan so that you don’t go “wide and deep” on debt. Choose a total dollar amount that you will spend on holiday gifts, especially if you’re gift-buying for many recipients, budget experts say.

“The optimal number is one that you’ll be able to pay for in full when credit card bills come in,” says Manisha Thakor, a financial literacy advocate at Tally, a full-service financial automation firm. “Then set your gifting plan.”

In doing so, holiday spenders will have two basic choices, and both are good options. “One is to go ‘narrow and deep,’ where you select a small handful of people to buy gifts for this season and go full out,” says Thakor. “The second one is to go ‘wide and shallow,’ where you select a large number of people and give a greater number of gifts at smaller dollar values.”

Leverage retail store cards. Now that Black Friday has come and gone, it’s likely that many Americans have already taken the plunge into new holiday debt that could follow them well into 2020, says Nathan Grant, a credit industry analyst at Credit Card Insider.

Grant says it can be very easy to overshoot your holiday spending goals using credit cards, especially when those must-have holiday sales start popping up. “While credit cards can be a helpful tool to finance large purchases over time, they also can be easily misused or misunderstood, which could lead to the prevalence of so much holiday debt,” he says.

That’s where retail credit cards can help during the holidays.

“Holiday shoppers can turn to retail store credit cards to fund some of their purchases around this time of year, especially if they shop at the retailer often and there’s a tempting discount or rewards potential for using the card,” Grant says. “Just make sure to pay off the balance as fast as possible. Co-branded store cards often have higher-than-average interest rates, sometimes well over 20%, and can be one of the biggest reasons for holiday debt becoming an issue.”

Use last year’s spending as a guide. Financial consumers often go over budget during the holiday shopping season because they haven’t set spending parameters for themselves, says Trae Bodge, a smart shopping expert and blogger at Trae Bodge Media in New York City. “A good place to start is to make a loose list of what you bought and spent last year, and then evaluate your current financial situation. Can you spend the same, more, or do you need to cut back?”

“Based on that, create a list of recipients, gift ideas, and allocate a spending limit for each one.”

Include yourself. Another budget-busting pitfall is selfish shopping. “The best way to avoid going overboard with ‘me’ gifts is to add yourself to your gift list with a spending cap,” Bodge advises.

Take a holiday trim to your gift list. If money is tight, take a hard look at your list of recipients and see where you can make cuts.

“Perhaps you’ve been gifting someone you are no longer close with,” Bodge says. “Also, look at groups of people you exchange gifts with, like coworkers or family. If you’re spending a lot there, suggest drawing names or forgoing gifts in exchange for a social gathering, like a potluck or inexpensive group outing.”

Reduce gift recipients. Another way to eliminate holiday debt is to set expectations — very specific expectations.

“If you have a large extended family, draw names in a ‘Secret Santa’ scenario and only purchase gifts for one person,” says Zachry. “Not only does it take the pressure off, it also relieves pressure from others in your life to spend money, too.”

Give the gift of financial knowledge. If you really want to give a friend or family member a holiday gift that counts, steer them to a qualified financial specialist, which can help both of you lock down your spending and steer clear of wealth-ruining debt.

“The problem with excess holiday spending is with people’s behavior,” says Lawrence Duffany Jr., a financial coach with Raising Hope in Thomaston, Connecticut. “When the pressure is off to pay, holiday spenders tend to rack up more debt.”

Duffany says that holiday spending excess is akin to people hitting the lottery, and ending up overspent and in debt. Thus, they need expert financial counseling.

“If you want to give someone a great financial gift for Christmas, put them in touch with a financial expert who deals in helping people get out of debt and strengthen their financial household.”

A deeper dive — Related reading on the 101:

Check out our tips on other ways to prevent holiday debt!

Unsure what to get your dad, who’s always so hard to shop for? Find the answer here!