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AP Poll: Debt stress turns shoppers into Scrooges

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A lot more Americans are feeling stressed out by debt this holiday season, raising the glum likelihood they’ll behave like Scrooge rather than Santa.

In fact, fully 93 percent say they’ll spend less or about the same as last year, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll. About 20 percent say they are suffering from debt-related stress, up from 15 percent in the spring despite all the talk about economic recovery.

Most people — 80 percent — say they’ll use mostly cash to pay for their holiday shopping, and that generally means buying less.

For example, Joy McGavin, 26, of Pittston, Pa., says she will cut back on holiday gifts by a few hundred dollars this year and pay for everything with cash.

“Family — nieces and nephews — we won’t be able to afford this year,” says the stay-at-home mother of three. They now shop at Big Lots — not Wal-Mart. “They’re too expensive this year,” she says.

Her husband, Robert, had been working two-full time jobs, as a mechanic at a garage and at an auto parts store. Recently his retail job was cut back to part time. “We don’t have as much as we had last year,” McGavin laments. They don’t have health insurance and have racked up major medical bills.

Diane Morrison, 57, of Flemington, N.J., says simply, “I’m going to cut back.” She’s clipping coupons and “looking for big sales.”

She owns a payroll company, and many of her clients are laying off workers. Some of the companies are folding, she says, and “I’m feeling more stressed because I feel my income will go down because of what’s happening with my business.”

Morrison and the McGavins are hardly alone with job problems. Unemployment has rocketed past 10 percent for only the second time since World War II, making it harder to pay monthly bills. Home foreclosures have spiked to record highs, and defaults on credit card debt are rising.

What does that mean for retailers in their most-important season?

“Cash serves as a very direct governing force upon spending,” says Dr. Alan Hilfer, director of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. “If you have $100 in your pocket, and that’s all you can spend, you’ll look around and make a decision based on the amount of money you have.” Credit cards, on the other hand, allow people to make more impulse purchases.

In the survey, people who intend to spend less during the holidays reported suffering from higher debt stress than those who plan to spend the same or more, said Paul J. Lavrakas, a research psychologist and AP consultant who analyzed the results.

Those who plan to use cash to pay for most of their holiday season purchases have higher stress levels, he said. So do those who will carry over at least some of their holiday season credit card charges because they won’t be able to pay the bill in full when it arrives.

Hilfer said that when debt increases and becomes a focus of anxiety, it forces people to start thinking more long term.

“They won’t allow impulse buying and won’t splurge as much because they are thinking that next year they may need to have the money to fix the motor on the washing machine, so they can’t spend that money now,” he said.

How consumers behave during the holidays and beyond is a critical force determining how strongly the economy snaps back from the worst recession since the 1930s. Consumer spending is the single-largest driver of overall economic activity.

The traditional kickoff of the holiday sales season is Friday — the day after Thanksgiving.

This time of year is crucial for merchants, accounting for up to 40 percent of their annual sales. The National Retail Federation believes holiday sales will decline this year, but the drop won’t be as steep as last year when the country was deep in recession.

Looking into next year, consumers won’t be in much of a mood to go on a shopping spree because of high unemployment and hard-to-get credit, according to the National Association for Business Economics. Consumer spending will rise a lackluster 2 percent next year, one of the forces restraining the strength of the recovery, NABE forecasters said. Such spending fell 0.2 percent in 2008. Unemployment now at 10.2 percent, will average 9.8 percent next year, they said.

For people who do plan to charge their holiday purchases, 75 percent say they’ll pay off the charges in full when the bill arrives. Twenty-five percent say they’ll carry some of the charges over into the next month.

The average amount owed on credit cards is $5,600, the poll said. That’s up from $4,900 in the spring.

More broadly, people carry an average of about $46,000 in debt — mortgages, credit cards, auto loans and other consumer debt. That’s a far bigger load than in the early 1980s when the jobless rate last topped 10 percent. In 1982 per capita debt totaled about $14,000 in today’s dollars.

The AP-GfK poll involved interviews with 1,006 adults and was conducted Nov. 5-9. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

AP Director of Polling Trevor Tompson and Associated Press Writer Ann Sanner contributed to this report.

On the Net:

Questions and results at http://www.ap-gfkpol l.com.

© 2009 Associated Press. Displayed by permission. All rights reserved.

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