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Frugal millennials leading way in hunting for bargains this holiday season

Robert Kissell graduated from college in 2010, is newly married and is a self-confessed holiday shopping junkie.

Like other millennials (he was born in 1988), he is tech-savvy. But also like other millennials, he has student loan debt. He says he is slated to pay it off in 10 years if all goes according to plan — although it takes between 25 to 30 percent of his income as an Internet marketing specialist at a real estate company in Southern Shores, N.C.

Kissell's experiences affect how he thinks about shopping this holiday season. Like other millennials, frugality and staying out of debt are the values he is trying to stick to.

A new study by personal finance website found that millennials are more frugal than their parents. Twenty percent of shoppers 30 to 44 years old say they'll go into debt this Christmas season, compared to only 7 percent of people between 18 and 29.

This year, Kissell is scouring the deals for a television for his home. He also is looking for other great deals on presents for his family. He plans on spending about $600 total on gifts.

"I've got a pretty good knack at finding deals," he says.

He likes getting deals on gifts not just because they are less expensive, but because on the surface they look like he spent a lot more.

Kissell says he saw all the economic problems of the recession. Most of his peers, he says, are dealing with pretty big school debt. Not as many of his peers have jobs yet. He has credit cards, but says he uses them mostly for credit building — not for debt. He has enough of that with his student and car loans.

Why so frugal?

Anisha Sekar, vice president of credit and debit products at NerdWallet, says one reason behind millennials' shopping frugality is debt.

"The purchasing burden is usually not as hard on millennials," Sekar says. "It isn't as hard as it is for people who have kids and grandkids. They have to go all out for their children."

Sekar says the notion that millennials are debt-ridden really only applies to student loans, not credit card debt.

"Younger folk have lower credit card debt than any other age cohort," she says. "That shows they are able to distinguish between an investment and a consumption purchase. Millennials aren't as willing to go into debt for short-term gain, but they are willing to go into debt for a long-term investment such as education."

But that student loan debt has a big effect, Sekar says.

"If you are under financial pressure, you don't want more," she says.

Chelsea Krost, 22, is a millennial lifestyle expert. She earned that title not only by being a millennial herself, but through her radio and television shows and through many other media appearances talking about her generation.

Krost sums up the situation millennials find themselves in: "They are graduating with $30,000 of student loans. The job market is extremely fierce and competitive. The unemployment rate among millennials is around 13 percent. And a lot of us are really looking to save a dollar where we can — and have to because the future is uncertain."

Looking for deals

One way Krost says millennials deal with an uncertain future is to look for ways to save money wherever they can — such as grabbing a deal from online coupon website Groupon or other discounts on apps.

Fashion is a passion for Krost, she says.

"In previous generations," Krost says, "you only knew what your parents and friends were wearing … but think of the resources we have now at our fingertips. We have social media, fashion apps, Instagram. You have access to designers as well as their collection."

Yet, even in all this, Krost shops mostly at brick-and-mortar stores. "I love feeling the fabrics and seeing how things look when I wear them," she says.

When she goes shopping, she still uses her smartphone, however.

"I take pictures of myself and send them to my friends," she says. "'Do you like this blazer?' or 'Do you like that blazer?'"

Sekar says it is helpful to use an app that can scan barcodes and tell shoppers if the price is good by comparing with other nearby stores. "Two good deal-finding apps are BuyVia (Web, iPhone and Android) and Invisible Hand (Web and iPhone)," she says.

"BuyVia lets you input a product (like "laptop" or "iPhone") and see what deals are available. The Invisible Hand browser extension lets you know if the item you're looking at is available for less at another website; the iPhone app lets you scan a barcode to do the same. While their database is still pretty limited, they have a few major stores like Target, Best Buy and Newegg."

All they want

That debt weighs down on millennials not just in how they shop for gifts, but in what gifts they want for Christmas. A survey by Upromise, an organization that helps people get money back from purchases to help save or pay for education, finds that 94 percent of millennials say they want to receive cash as a gift this year — and 89 percent say they would use that money to pay down debt.

This shows millennials are practical in the things they want for the holidays, says Debby Hohler, a spokeswoman at Upromise.

Hohler hopes that some millennials will consider, if they are going to shop online, that they might use Upromise to make those purchases at major retailers so that they can earn 5 percent back that they can use toward paying off those heavy student loan burdens.

"Millennials are loud and clear that they are looking to save money when they are spending," Hohler says.

Eighty percent of millennials say they are shopping online this year, according to the Upromise survey, compared with 69 percent of baby boomers and 61 percent of seniors. Thirty-three percent of millennials say they would even postpone purchases until after the holidays to save 40 percent or more on their purchases.

Hohler compares attitudes of millennials to people who grew up in the Great Depression.

"Millennials lived through the depth of the recession," Hohler says. "Many of them are more financially sensitive because of that. They saw their parents and peers having trouble and so are being more cautious."

Shopping anywhere

Koert Bakker, vice president of insight and strategy at The Integer Group, a shopping and brand strategy agency, says the holiday shopping experience is different today than it was in the past. It used to be that people would research and shop in a store. Nowadays people can shop anywhere and they can buy anywhere. It doesn't have to be in a store. It can be at the breakfast table, on a ski lift, in an airplane, at a Little League game — anywhere.

"Shopping and the transaction have been completely separated," Bakker says. "You see people going into Best Buy to do their research, and then buying the item online using Amazon. Or you see the reverse."

Integer's studies show that 6 percent of holiday shoppers will use smartphones as an information resource this year, compared to 4 percent last year.

For those who research in a store, about 57 percent purchase the item in the store, according to Integer's studies, but 29 percent will purchase it later on a computer.

"Retailers can't really predict who is going to be doing what," Bakker says. "You just have to make sure that whatever their behavior is, that you thought about it. If people can research anywhere and they can buy anywhere, retailers have to cater to that."

Buying brands

Bakker says there is also a branding aspect to how millennials shop. "They like brands," he says. "They feel they are a reflection of you and who you are as a unique individual. Expressing your unique individuality is an important part of showing who you are in the group."

Kissell doesn't worry about brands too much right now.

"In my mind, buying certain brands is a luxury," he says. "A lot of millennials are conscious about brands. We would like to buy the-sweater-that-feeds-20-kids, but for a lot of us paying that $5 more just isn't possible right now."

Long-term change

Will this frugality stick?

"Some sort of behavior is going to become ingrained in certain millennials," Krost says, "probably those millennials who are really affected by today's job market. But some millennials are in Silicon Valley and part of that startup world and are floating in money. It is frustrating and difficult to look at a whole generation and bracket them within the same behaviors or interest."


Twitter: @degroote