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Has the pandemic permanently changed how we save and spend?

Holiday shoppers walk around the Pembroke Gardens shopping center in Pembroke Pines, Fla., Sunday. J. Pat Carter, Associated Press

In 1965, journalist Edward Mowery lamented how credit card debt was bankrupting Americans.

“It’s fashionable today to owe for the TV set, oil burner, car, mink coat and trips around the world,” he wrote in a syndicated newspaper op-ed. “And the ‘live-it-up’ atmosphere saturates the nation.”

This 55-year-old statement is not just a curious oddity from a bygone era when Americans, still overwhelmingly using cash for most purchases, had no idea what was coming. No, it illustrates how long American culture has been, bit by bit, learning to rely on plastic for the movement of goods and services.

We didn’t suddenly wake up one morning and decide it was OK to use credit cards for groceries, something my mother recoiled at during the 1970s when someone suggested it. She and other adults at the time saw this as immoral, but that generation had warmed to the use of credit for other things a previous generation likely had seen immoral, as well. Take TVs, cars and trips around the world, for instance. In our own lifetimes, not too long ago, fast food restaurants accepted only cash. Today, some cashiers look askance if you hand them actual money.

It’s been a gradual attitude shift; one that has brought us to a society that is nearly cashless. That trend no doubt has been boosted by a pandemic that sees cash, rightly, as too laden with germs.

But amid this gradual change, something interesting has happened because of the pandemic. People are paying down credit card debt in record amounts, and they have begun to save more, as well.

The question is, will this be a permanent change? Will Americans emerge from the seemingly endless months of economic uncertainty the pandemic has forced on them the way people nearly a century ago emerged from the Great Depression — changed forever in the way they handle the assets they have?

Americans entered 2020 carrying more than $1 trillion in combined credit card debt. But once the pandemic hit, that figure dropped. The personal finance website Wallethub.com reported this week that Americans paid off a record $60 billion in credit card debt during the first quarter of the year, followed by another $58 billion in the second quarter.

The website USdebtclock.org now says we owe only a combined $987 billion on our cards.

It’s not unusual for Americans to pay down debt during the first quarter, given how much they tend to spend during the holiday season, but this was the first time in more than 30 years that credit card debt dropped from April to June.

The reasons are, of course, obvious. Many Americans had nowhere to go during those months. Restaurants, hair salons and many stores were closed. In addition, many Americans were either furloughed or laid off, and so they were far more careful in how they spent money, some of which came from emergency government benefits.

If you’re curious, Utah comes in 31st among states, in terms of this payoff. The total owed here is $7.5 billion, which is nearly a half billion less than it used to be.

Meanwhile, the national savings rate hit an all-time high of 33.7% in April, according to Statista.com. That subsequently dropped to 17.8% on July 20, which is still impressive compared with last December’s 7.2%.

Citing Moody’s Analytics, The Hill said American households put away a combined $916 billion more than they did before the pandemic, and that this is certain to eventually pass $1 trillion.

Except, of course, that the government stimulus has dried up and a lot of those stores, restaurants and hair salons are beginning to open again.

Getting back to the question, what have we learned? Is any of this permanent?

My guess is the answer depends on how much longer the pandemic forces us to reconsider old ways. Real, long-lasting change requires years of sacrifice. The Great Depression lasted more than a decade, which was why many from that era continued to distrust banks and use every ounce of wear from clothing and other items the rest of their lives.

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the editor of Vanity Fair pronounced the end of the age of irony — the shallow, unserious attitudes that had permeated the culture. A few months later, it was obvious he had been wrong.

In much the same way, the great recession a decade ago didn’t change the overall trend toward greater use of credit and consumer debt.

Time will tell, of course, but it takes a lot of time to truly change a culture. With economies in Utah and elsewhere recovering (a good thing, by the way), it’s unlikely we’re going to reverse the debt trend Mowery perceived 55 years ago so quickly.