After years of saving, shoppers treat themselves

— -- In the recent holiday shopping frenzy, Doreen Foxwell picked up a Coach handbag, Margie Jordan purchased a laptop, a digital camera and a camcorder, and Samantha Martin bought boots, a cashmere throw blanket and an iPad 2.

Yet those purchases didn't help them cross anyone off their holiday gift-buying lists.

They each splurged on themselves.

After years of scrimping, saving and self-sacrifice, consumers are treating themselves to everything from fragrances to flat-screen TVs this holiday shopping season.

"I'm out there buying for everyone else, so why not reward myself? This is a chance for me to be good to me," says Martin, who wraps her own gifts and adds a To: Samantha, From: Samantha tag. "I work very hard and never take the time during the year , so during the holidays I add myself to my holiday list."

More than a third of consumers — 36% — plan to buy gifts for themselves this year, up from 29% last year, according to an America's Research Group/UBS survey.

Sixty percent of shoppers set aside money to make additional "non-gift" purchases for themselves and their families this year, up from 57% in 2010, according to the National Retail Federation. The average person will spend $130.43 on such purchases, a 16% rise from $112.20 spent last year and an all-time high since the NRF started tracking self-gifting in 2002.

On Black Friday alone, 44% of shoppers bought something for themselves, up from 33% last year, according to retail trend tracker The NPD Group.

"During the holidays, we traditionally think of it as a season for gift-giving," says NPD Group Chief Industry Analyst Marshal Cohen. But self-indulgence is quickly becoming a "new tradition."

After several years of cutting back, people have grown weary of dismissing their own wants and needs, he says.

They're also looking for a reward after dealing with a year that included a roller-coaster stock market, increased work demands and overall economic uncertainty, says Wendy Liebmann, CEO of retail consultants WSL Strategic Retail.

"It's been a damn hard year," she says. "People want to pat themselves on the back for just surviving."

Mix together that waning restraint, that desire for a reward and the plethora of tantalizing purchase options showcased at this time of year, and the result is the "one for you, one for me" shopping attitude.

Temptations are everywhere, Liebmann says. Each day, consumers are bombarded with TV ads, daily-deal e-mails and Facebook promotions that present enticing items.

"There are so many ways to get you distracted from your (gift) list and tempt you to buy something for yourself," she says.

While shoppers are out seeking gifts for friends and family, they often come across items that they want to keep.

Three-fourths of shoppers said they've "loved" a gift so much that they bought the same thing for themselves, according to a customer survey from personal shopping website

Real estate agent Chantay Bridges has splurged on herself while shopping for others.

While in Southern California's Beverly Center to buy a pair of sparkly Ugg boots for her goddaughter, she snapped up a more subdued pair for herself.

The self-splurging "has happened so many times now, I can just place me in the category of 'totally treating myself to gifts this year,' " she says.

Flusher bank accounts

Many self-indulgent shoppers have economic justifications.

Regular gas prices are down by about 70 cents a gallon since a high of $3.98 a gallon this spring, according to the AAA. And in November, unemployment fell to 8.6% from 9% in October, hitting its lowest point since March 2009.

Diligent cost-cutters have reduced monthly expenses such as cellphone and cable bills, says America's Research Group Chairman Britt Beemer. In turn, their bank accounts are flusher than in the past few years.

"You have people who've made cutbacks and have actually saved money," Beemer says. "If they want to splurge $200 or $300, they have the money in their checking account."

Nearly a fourth of shoppers will spend $100 to $300 on themselves this year, up from 13% who said they planned to spend that much on themselves in 2010, an America's Research Group/UBS survey found.

Given the effort it can take to bolster savings — such as scouring the Internet for coupon codes or skipping that $4 daily latte — many shoppers feel that they've earned the right to treat themselves, says NPD's Cohen.

"The consumer is saying, 'It's OK for me to be rewarded,' " he says. "They are justifying the purchase."

Yet, in getting that well-deserved treat, many are maintaining a frugal mind-set, Cohen says.

They're not impulsively purchasing a full-price laptop or diamond earrings. Instead, they're researching purchases, comparing prices and holding out for a sale before pouncing.

"They've been waiting for the Black Friday specials and the Cyber Monday deals," Cohen says. "This is their chance. This is their moment to take advantage of the opportunities."

Shopper Mike Hogan says that he's tapped into the deals offered this holiday season to buy himself a leather coat, two sweaters and other items.

"It is a great time of the year to find great deals on clothing and other essentials you will use year round," says Hogan, who lives in Columbus, Ohio. "I don't shop much any other time of the year, so I make up for it at Christmas time."

Gifts for you

Sales-seeking businesses are thrilled with this trend, and many companies are encouraging shoppers to treat themselves right this year.

An e-mail promotion for an American Eagle Outfitter's gift guide carries this theme: "Live to Give. Love to Get." Additional text says: "Great gifts and perfect presents for her, for him or for you."

The website for shoe retailer Zappos says it has "gift ideas for everyone on your list … including you."

And a commercial for retailer HomeGoods shows a woman who picks up a beautifully decorated dish and says, "Oh … merry Christmas, Aunt Sophie." Once she sees the price, she exclaims, "Merry Christmas, me!"

On Nov. 29, online clothing sale curator launched a Treat Yourself Tuesday promotion that will run through Christmas and may continue into 2012 if reception remains positive, says Tamra Feldman, marketing director.

"Sure, it's nice to stuff other people's stockings, but what about the new Wolford's (hosiery) you need for yourself?" says the site's blog.

Retailers depend on shoppers' wants — such as that high-end Wolford hosiery — to bolster revenue.

Most people have the same number of friends and family to buy for each year — and only slightly vary what they spend on each person, Cohen says. So retailers are looking at the "treat yourself" part of the market as a way to grow overall sales.

"The self-purchase isn't the biggest part of holiday, but it is the growth part of holiday," he says. "

It's OK

Psychologists and money managers say it's perfectly fine for folks to treat themselves — if they do it in an savvy manner.

"It's quite reasonable to treat oneself to something nice during stressful times — holiday or not," says psychologist Kathleen Vohs. "(It) could be a nice diversion from the stressors of the impending holidays," as long as the purchase isn't excessive for one's budget.

Minneapolis-based certified financial planner Brian Wagenbach, a branch manager for Charles Schwab, advises that people spend cash, rather than credit, on their self-indulgences, to keep spending in check.

"Psychologically, it's harder to hand over a $100 bill rather than just swipe plastic," he says. "That's why Las Vegas has poker chips. If you lost cash, you'd probably shut down a lot faster than if you were just throwing green, red and black (chips) across the table."

His other advice: Small financial sacrifices can offset the price of a larger treat. For instance, if a self-gifter cuts back on restaurant dinners or takes lunch to work (instead of buying expensive deli sandwiches), he or she can bulk up the holiday budget.

And if that wanted item is still too expensive, there are ways to work around that, he says.

"Get creative in your reward," he says. "If your 'it' item isn't in the budget, get the less-expensive option. If you want an iPad, get a less-expensive version of the tablet. If you'd like to get a massage or go to a spa day, look into a massage school where you can get a less-expensive version."

For those don't want to compromise, he advocates "delayed gratification" — even if that means not getting that prized item until 2012.

One of the best gifts someone can give themselves is to not just acquire something they crave, but to be able to fully pay for it.

"If you save up and make the sacrifices on the front end and reward yourself on the back end — what an awesome feeling," he says.