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Discount Diva: My, how holiday spending has changed since the '40s

Samantha Christmann

Back when I was a kid, all we got for Christmas was an orange in our stocking and a kick in the pants and we liked it!

Not really. I was a child of the go-go '80s, when everything was plastic and hair spray and excess and greed. I didn’t go to sleep with visions of sugar plums dancing in my head on Christmas Eve; I wanted Jem and the Holograms under the tree. (I got one doll: Jem herself. I was happy. Close enough.)

I loved hearing stories from my parents and grandparents about how they spent their Christmases growing up. Now I tell my kids the same kinds of stories: Times were lean, but everything was magical.

So, I started wondering: Without the nostalgic glow of memory, how do all those Christmases stack up in terms of dollars and cents? Has Christmas spending really gotten as out of control as everyone says?

In short, yes. In the past 40 years, our holiday spending has more than doubled and has risen steadily since the Great Recession.

Finance website took spending and income data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic Analysis, adjusted it for inflation, and used it to determine how much the average consumer spent on the November and December holidays each year, going back to 1940.

A wee Discount Diva, making priceless Christmas memories.

It’s a real eye-opener. In 1940, the average shopper spent the equivalent of $205.26 at the holidays, on an annual salary of $7,621. That was about 2.7 percent of their income.

Could you do that this year?

After World War II, everyone lost their minds and started throwing their newfound wealth around, right? Nope. Spending increased in 1946, but just to $247.18.

In 1955, the year Norman Rockwell painted his idyllic “Home for Christmas,” the average amount spent crept up to just $285.10.

In 1965, the year “A Charlie Brown Christmas” premiered, with its sweet, anti-consumerist message, spending jumped to $326.91, but that was actually a smaller portion of a consumer’s income; 2.08 percent.

In 1978, spending leaped to a whopping $482.59. Still, that was just 2.11 percent of a consumer’s income, which had risen to $22,904.

The 1980s? The decade of excess? In 1985, when Teddy Ruxpin was king, spending blasted up to $665.04. Still, consumers were spending just 2.55 percent of their income.

The '90s were when things really got nuts. Spending broke the thousand-dollar mark in 1992 at $1,056.47 – a whopping 3.56 percent of our income. (It wasn’t my fault; all I wanted was a P.M. Dawn cassette.)

That began a new normal (or insanity?) that hasn’t relented to this day. Remember 2008, when the market crashed and we all got a wake-up call, rearranging our priorities and tightening our belts? Only a little. In 2008, we “cut back” to $1,658.25 – a decrease to 4.04 percent of our incomes. Spending had peaked at 4.28 percent of income in 2007.

Even that “lesson” didn’t stick. The most recent data, for 2015, shows we got ourselves all the way back up to $1,965.37; 4.48 percent of our income.

Some Americans have less than that saved for retirement.

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