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Middle Class Families Will Have The Hardest Time Paying Off Holiday Debt

When they first got married in 2008, Deacon and Kim Hayes were carried away by their holiday shopping. With two incomes from their sales and teaching jobs, the Arizona couple wasn’t worried about finances — which is how they ended up with holiday debt that took months to pay off.

“When you are in the middle class, you get more comfortable,” Deacon Hayes said. “You feel like, ‘I make enough money. I should be able to afford that.’ ”

But if a recent study proves true, it will take middle-income families like the Hayeses longer than lower-income families to pay off their holiday debt this year.

Households earning between $50,000 and $75,000 annually will take an average of 2.6 months to pay off holiday debt, according to the study, conducted by Harris Interactive Inc., a market research company. Lower-income households that make below $50,000 will take an average of two months to pay off their holiday debt. (Households that make over $100,000 will need only one credit card statement to shed the debt.)

This surprised Matthew Ong, a retail analyst at the consumer finance site NerdWallet, and revealed the precarious financial position of many families, even as the economy improves, he said. (The study focused on Black Friday deals but also looked at post-holiday season debt.) Middle-class families may have higher credit limits, but that doesn’t mean they have a lot more money to work with, Ong said.

Nationwide, retail sales are projected to reach $616.9 billion this year, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF). That’s up 4 percent from last year, higher than the average 2.9 percent over the last 10 years.

So far, though, total spending for this year’s Black Friday weekend was lower than expected, dropping 11 percent from last year to an expected $50.9 billion this year. And the NRF’s Cyber Monday projections are also down 3.5 percent to 126.9 million shoppers this year. Still, November and December sales could end up accounting for 20 percent to 40 percent of a retailer’s annual sales.

It should come as no surprise that the winter holidays make up the biggest shopping season on the calendar, but consider that the second-largest spending season, back-to-school and college time, accounted for an estimated $74.5 billion this year, according to the NRF.

As consumer confidence grows, 36 percent of people anticipate spending more money on holiday shopping this year than last, according to an Experian survey, while 25 percent expect to spend less. Specifically, consumers are expected to spend $757.57 this year, up from $721.96 in 2013.

Yet, fewer people are planning to create a budget for their spending. Only 38 percent of consumers surveyed said they plan to set aside a budget this year, while 54 percent said they have budgeted in the past, according to Experian.

Deacon Hayes now runs his own personal finance website after he and his wife not only paid off their holiday debt, but paid off student loans and other debt amounting to $52,000 in 18 months. He admitted that their spending back in 2008 was driven in part by a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses effect. That pressure hasn’t dissipated, but the couple now sets money aside for holiday gifts — starting in January.

Jessica Glazer is a multimedia reporter in New York City and the founder of ReportHers, which features Q&As with innovative women in journalism.