Holiday Central

Millennial shoppers say they're ready to spend this holiday. But skeptics aren't so sure.

Shoppers walk past the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in New York.
Getty Images

Millennials say they're ready to spend this holiday — but will they deliver?

As more of these young consumers enter the workforce and start to climb the corporate ladder, a handful of holiday surveys have found they will drive much of the anticipated increase in retail sales this winter.

Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 told PwC they plan to spend $1,053 this Christmas, up 26 percent from 2015. While that budget is less than what Generation X and Baby Boomers said they'll spend, the gain is substantially larger.

Studies by Adobe Digital Insights and Accenture came to similar conclusions. Adobe's research found that millennial shoppers plan to raise their budgets by nearly 45 percent this year, to an average $993. That compares with an 8 percent lift from older shoppers, who are planning to shell out $1,009.

And at Accenture, 61 percent of consumers between ages 18 and 24 said they'll spend more this Christmas, along with 54 percent of respondents between 25 and 34. That's greater than the planned uptick from the overall population, with 44 percent saying they'll increase their budgets.

The results come despite ballooning student loan debt, which many experts predict will hold back consumer spending this holiday and down the road.

"What we've seen is no matter how bad the economy is, we always have a Christmas," Moody's analyst Charlie O'Shea told CNBC. "[But] there are a lot of variables here."

Striking a balance

Central to many skeptics' doubts about an uptick in millennial spending is the amount of consumer debt tied up in student loans. A recent Moody's report called out $1.3 trillion in outstanding student loans, estimating the average graduate leaves college with roughly $29,000 in total debt.

That would equate to an average monthly payment of $322, representing a "big percentage" of their take-home pay, the report said.

Indeed, separate research by Citizens Bank concluded that college graduates under 35 who have outstanding student loans are spending nearly one-fifth of their salaries on these payments — forcing them to prioritize their discretionary spending.

For 26-year-old Jaime Phipps, who earned her master's in education from Clemson in May, this Christmas will be the first time she has to balance holiday shopping with her $350 a month in student loan payments.

As a result, the Atlanta resident is looking for ways to cut back. She's particularly budget-conscious given that she's still making monthly car and rental payments, and is planning her September wedding.

"I have at some points talked to my family and said, 'Why don't we just not do gifts?'" Phipps said. "It stinks because you want to do something fun for your family."

While she hasn't yet decided how she'll tackle gift-giving, Phipps said she plans to set a budget and withdraw cash so she sticks to it. She also plans to spend less on herself.

"It's definitely overwhelming," she said. "I can't just go out and get whatever I would have."

A case for caution

Millennials' decisions to shy away from home ownership has dealt the generation another blow, as its members are hit "disproportionately" by rising rent costs, said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners.

His firm predicts holiday sales will rise 4.1 percent this holiday, but he sees millennials increasing their spending by closer to 1 percent or 2 percent.

"They are not participating to the extent other people are," Johnson said.

Data from NPD Group Checkout Tracking, which pulls its information from customer receipts, backs up the thesis that millennials are holding back. It found that shoppers between ages 25 and 34 have been spending consistently less quarter by quarter since the three months ended December.

"There's been a steady drop," said Andy Mantis, who heads up the service, in an email.

He noted that millennials are allocating more of their budgets toward restaurant visits, home improvement and gasoline, and spending less on clothing and accessories.

Still, there are some winds at millennials' backs this holiday, which could encourage them to spend more. PwC's Steve Barr pointed to deflation in groceries, gasoline and electricity, which have offset increases in rent and health insurance.

Millennials are also less bogged down by other forms of debt. A report from Gallup earlier this year found that fewer millennials have credit card and auto loan debt than the overall population.

In many cases, the amount millennials will spend this holiday is situational. If a recent college graduate decides to live at home, that's $1,000 a month they can put toward paying off their loans, Moody's O'Shea said. That means they'll have more to spend on Christmas presents.

Separately, Adobe's research found that much of the anticipated lift in spending for 18- to 34-year-olds is seen coming from those who plan to spend more than $2,500, implying the increase could be correlated to income.

Yet even among more middle-class millennials, a stronger economic backdrop could be enough for them to rationalize spending more this Christmas, and finally release some pent-up demand.

"People have been held back," PwC's Barr said.