Originally created 01/14/02

Paying off debt a priority for consumers



This New Year's almost as many people swore off debt as cheesecake and ice cream.

Asked in a survey about their most important resolution for 2002, 28 percent of those responding listed paying down debt. That was just behind the 30 percent who vowed to lose weight and exercise more in the New Year.

The question was posed as part of a nationwide poll of more than 1,000 adults conducted last week for Cambridge Consumer Credit Index. The survey was launched last month by Debt Relief Clearinghouse, a for-profit credit counseling agency in Massachusetts.

For tens of millions of overextended Americans who are juggling credit card bills, auto loans and mortgages, cutting back on borrowing would be a good thing. Financial advisers stress that debt reduction is the single-most important step most people can take in managing their money.

But for the economy as a whole, that could wreak havoc, at least in the short term. Fewer autos, dishwashers, overcoats and Hawaiian vacations would be sold - not exactly the medicine recommended for the nation to recover from recession.

"If we saw a big decline in consumer credit, it would clearly be a negative for the economy," said Putnam Investments economist Dean Maki, who used to watch household debt for the Federal Reserve.

Still, the economy may not actually have to contend with a wave of abstemious shoppers. It turns out that promises to pay down debt are a bit like that unused exercise bicycle in the basement: an expression of good intentions, not a commitment to action. Many people who say they are borrowing less aren't following through.

In the last year, consumer credit rose 6.5 percent, according to the Federal Reserve, slower than in previous years, but still a fast pace.

About 61 percent of those responding to the Cambridge survey said they paid off debt in December, compared with 69 percent who said in last month's survey that they had done so in November.

But credit data issued by the Federal Reserve this week showed exactly the opposite. Total credit not counting home loans jumped in November at a steep annual growth rate of 14.6 percent for the month. Much of that was due to consumers grabbing low and no-interest loans to buy cars.

The fact that debt could rise sharply at a time when most people said they were paying off loans could be explained by the heavy borrowing of a minority of consumers. But it could also reflect that, as with diet and exercise, people report what they think they should do, not what they really do.

"People used credit more than they said they would," said Allen Grommet, the Cambridge Index's economist.