Business - Economy Poll: Consumers feel less angst from debt

By Alan Fram

and Jennifer Agiesta

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Debt isn't stressing people as much as it had been, but consumers remain gun-shy about embarking on a big holiday spending spree.

An Associated Press-GfK Poll also suggests Americans are more disciplined about using their credit cards. Deep into a stubbornly harsh economic downturn, more people than last year say they pay off their balances right away, and fewer say they make credit card purchases if they lack enough money at the time.

Fifty-nine percent said they feel little or no stress from their family's debt from mortgages, credit cards and other loans. That's an improvement from when 49 percent said so a year ago, with women and city residents reporting significantly less tension than last year.

In addition, 52 percent said they seldom or never worry about their financial liabilities, about the same as last year but the first time more than half said so since an AP poll first asked that question in 2004.

"People are essentially adapting to their circumstances," said Joseph Sirgy, a marketing professor at Virginia Tech who studies consumer behavior. He said the change appears to be a combination of people revamping their financial behavior and getting mentally used to tough times.

Some, though, face deeper problems. About 1 in 8 expressed worry about ever getting out of debt, 1 in 5 acknowledged brooding about IOUs all or most of the time and 1 in 10 predicted his or her debts will be a major problem for the next five years.

Federal Reserve data show that total household debt has dipped by 3 percent since its peak in early 2008, as the recession was starting. That reflects both defaults and people paying down their IOUs, analysts say.

Another measure of debt-related anxiety tied to the AP-GfK Poll, the debt stress index, fell to 25, the lowest level since the AP began taking the measurement in 2004. The figure means people are feeling relatively little angst about the money they owe.

Paul J. Lavrakas, a research psychologist and AP consultant who analyzed the AP-GfK survey, said the least worried include people earning more than $75,000 a year, those without children in their households and retired people under age 60. Those most disturbed by their debt include the lowest earning, the better educated and residents of the Northeast.

Just 9 percent in the AP-GfK Poll said they plan to spend more this year on holiday purchases than they did a year ago. Thirty-seven percent said they plan to spend less, down from the 53 percent who said in 2008 that they'd cut holiday spending, while just over half plan to spend the same amount.

Published: Mon, Nov 29, 2010

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