Dallas Morning News

Debt: From disgrace to entitlement

Pamela Yip, October 8, 2007

At a time when subprime mortgages have triggered turmoil in the housing and credit markets, Robert Manning's presentation before a group of financial educators last week couldn't have been timed better.

Mr. Manning, director of the Center for Consumer Financial Services at Rochester Institute of Technology and author of Credit Card Nation , chronicled how our attitude toward debt has evolved.

"We've gone from a society that promotes long-term planning and investing" to one where children no longer work extra hours or get a part-time job to save for something they want, he said.

"They go to an ATM, and it spits out money," Mr. Manning told attendees of the Annual Conference on Financial Education presented by the Institute for Financial Literacy.

Way back when, cash was king. Benjamin Franklin said, "A penny saved is a penny earned," and you were taught that debt doesn't sit well with God.

"Religion played an important role in shaping attitudes toward debt," Mr. Manning said.

He quoted the old song "Sixteen Tons": "You load 16 tons, what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. St. Peter, don't you call me, 'cause I can't go. I owe my soul to the company store."

Generational attitudes toward debt also were influential.

Most of today's seniors believe that if you retired with debt, "it was a source of shame," Mr. Manning said.

"Debt is the final report card," he said. "If you were in debt, you had mismanaged your financial affairs."

Modern-day attitudes are very different.

"This really is a profound cultural change," Mr. Manning said.

Banks once viewed their best customers as the ones who paid off their loans, and credit cards were offered to only the most creditworthy customers, he said.

"Today, credit is a social entitlement, and you get rewarded with more debt as you fall further and further behind," Mr. Manning said.

Taking on debt is actually encouraged by lenders through all sorts of enticements from 0 percent interest to free T-shirts for college students.

"Living with increasingly higher levels of debt has become an accepted and normal state of affairs – considered an inevitable and likely permanent feature of everyday life," Mr. Manning said in a 2005 study.

Some levels of debt can't be avoided.

Many debt-laden consumers got that way because they don't have health insurance or don't have enough of it to cover their health care expenses.

"Much of the traditional social and cultural views of good debt vs. bad debt have been influenced by mass marketing to Baby Boomers and their children and grandchildren, many of whom expect or feel pressured to pursue immediate gratification over traditional values like saving for a rainy day," Mr. Manning said in his study.

That's why it's so important today that financial educators redefine the roles of spending and saving, and help people develop good financial behavior.

"It's not the big hole that's taking down the financial ship," Mr. Manning said. "It's the cumulative effects of the small holes."

The turmoil in the housing market isn't over, Mr. Manning predicted.

The first phase involved urban, low-income minority consumers who exhausted their consumer credit and had no other sources of funds to help them through their financial crisis, he said.

The second wave will come in the next two years and will take down high-income, middle-class suburban homeowners with mortgages of $200,000 or more, Mr. Manning said.

"Not only have they overpaid for their homes, but they've also refinanced their credit card debt when they refinanced into their mortgages," he said. "These are the people who are going to run through their lines of credit."

It's already happening.

Consumers have boosted their borrowing at the fastest pace in three months, increasingly turning to their credit cards as a source of ready cash.

The Federal Reserve reported that consumer credit rose at an annual rate of 5.9 percent in August, the biggest increase since a 7.9 percent jump in May.

The increase was led by an 8.1 percent jump in revolving credit, the category that includes credit card loans.

Consumers have been using their credit cards more to finance purchases now that home equity lines of credit are becoming harder to obtain.

And, as the song says, what do they get? "Another day older and deeper in debt."


This story ran on Dallas Morning News on October 8, 2007.