On Christmas -- Here's what Americans say will make them happy this holiday season

When it comes to the economy and personal finances, Americans are feeling quite upbeat these days. Consumer confidence has reached a 17-year high and by many accounts the 2017 holiday shopping season has produced strong sales numbers.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) reported that based on November’s numbers, retail sales this holiday season “are on track to meet or exceed NRF’s holiday sales forecast for an increase between 3.6 and 4 percent over last year.”

However, consumers’ holiday moods aren’t quite as positive as their feelings about their finances – but this trade-off isn’t all bad.

For the fourth consecutive year my organization, Consumers’ Research, released its annual holiday survey conducted in conjunction with GfK Custom Research North America. This year’s results seem to confirm Americans’ confidence about the economy and their own personal finances.

According to this year’s survey, only 19 percent of people said that sticking to a budget would be their highest priority during the holidays, a considerable drop from 24 percent in 2016 and 28 percent in 2015.

This certainly indicates that consumers are more willing to open their wallets. Interestingly, the results also show that while consumers are open to spending more, they aren’t necessarily feeling more festive.

On this point, the survey found that 19 percent of respondents think this holiday season will be the merriest it could possibly be. While this was essentially the same percentage (20 percent) as last year, it is down 6 percentage points from 25 percent in 2015.

Despite the endless barrage of holiday gift commercials that consumers face at this time of year, it seems that the old adage, “money doesn’t buy happiness,” still rings true.

So, what do Americans say will make them happy this holiday season?

For the fourth consecutive year, our survey found that people most look forward not to exchanging gifts, but to spending time with those close to them.

Fifty-five percent of those surveyed said “spending time with loved ones” was their most important priority during the holidays, while only 15 percent said giving a gift and 4 percent said receiving gifts.

The survey also asked what holiday gifts respondents found “very desirable.” On this point, spending “quality time with loved ones” (55 percent), again, remained the most desirable gift, far outpacing money (26 percent), getting a handmade gift (22 percent), receiving a gift card (19 percent), a monetary investment such as a CD (13 percent) and a store-bought gift (12 percent).

Of course, that doesn’t mean people won’t give their loved ones presents, or won’t expect to get gifts in return; the reality is that many people still feel obligated to get their loved ones something of monetary value. This is where they need to be careful if they haven’t started shopping.

With Christmas almost here, a feeling of panic starts to sink in for many last-minute shoppers. While our survey found that only 13 percent said they plan to go shopping on Christmas Eve, that’s still over 32 million Americans who say they will shop on the final day alone.

So, for those consumers heading to the malls or online to buy last-minute gifts, it’s important to remember not to overspend, not only for fear of exceeding one’s budget but also risking getting the wrong gift.

Despite all the commercials encouraging you to head down to your local car dealer and get that special someone the Lexus they always wanted, all you need to do is stop stressing, spend only what your budget allows, and then complement that with the ultimate gift: your presence and time. That will go a long way in helping people maintain their financial and personal happiness.