We all know attitudes change, but sometimes it helps to travel back in time to understand just how much this is true.
Sometimes, it is especially helpful to do so with Black Friday deals staring us in the face.
In December of 1969, some grocery stores were just beginning to accept credit cards. A reporter for the Journal Herald of Dayton, Ohio, interviewed women at a store to see how they felt about it. I found her report using newspapers.com.
“Never!” one woman told her. “That would be like paying for a dead horse — paying for something already used up.”
Another woman said credit cards would lead people to overspend. “I’m sure that people will find the accumulated total of charges at the end of the month much harder to pay than they would have if they had paid cash at the time of each purchase.”
Yet another predicted, “You’ll see, this will end up as one of the biggest causes of voluntary bankruptcy. People won’t be lining up at grocery store cash registers, but rather at the bankruptcy courts.”
And another woman seemed to have a clear view into the future, saying, “I think we’re going to come to the time when we won’t handle any of our money at all. Some big computer will run us and our money.”
She could have added “until some hacker comes along and steals our money and our identity,” but crystal balls are seldom so clear.
The reporter could have spoken to my mother at the time (although she didn’t live in Dayton). I remember her telling me that using credit for groceries was immoral.
However, it’s worth noting that many people from her generation were already getting used to flashing plastic for larger items, such as televisions, furniture or vacations. An earlier generation would have frowned upon that.
As I noted once before, journalist Edward Mowery wrote in 1965 that “it’s fashionable today to owe for the TV set, oil burner, car, mink coat and trips around the world. And the ‘live-it-up’ atmosphere saturates the nation.”
By that measure, we’re living it up exponentially higher today, although it’s doubtful many of us see things that way, especially when we use credit cards for everyday items, shopping from home in what has become a mostly cashless society.
I thought about all this recently when the Federal Reserve Bank of New York released data showing that household debt in the United States rose faster in the third quarter of this year than at any time since 2008. We added $351 billion in overall debt, with higher-interest mortgages leading the way.
But the report said we also added the most credit card debt in 20 years, increasing our collective balances by 15% over this time in 2021. This, at a time when interest rates are topping 19% on those cards, and when you don’t have to Google too hard to find warnings of a possible looming recession.
Experts were couching this news by noting that delinquency rates remain low. Wells Fargo economist Shannon Seery told Deseret News reporter Art Raymond that most households still have enough disposable income to handle a bit more debt. Seery said to expect a 6% increase in holiday spending this year, but most of that will be due to inflation.
I see little to cheer about in any of this, especially considering the New York Fed reported that lower-income people in the 30 to 59 age range are charging a lot more than higher-income people in the 60-79 range.
The upward trend in unsecured borrowing has few, if any, upsides, especially when it comes to inflation.
“It is tempting to cheer on the ‘resilience’ of the consumer, but the staying power of spending gives businesses no incentive to forgo price increases, thereby making the task of getting inflation in check more difficult for policymakers,” Seery wrote in a Federal Reserve blog, along with economist Tim Quinlan.
This increase also comes at a time when LendingClub reports 60% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, and when the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that Americans are earning 3% less, on average, in real terms, than a year ago.
I’m not suggesting that Americans stop using credit cards this holiday season. That would be unrealistic in the age of computer shopping and concerns about unsanitary money.
But it might be wise, as you look at all those enticing ads on Friday, to listen to the wisdom of a bunch of shoppers 53 years ago who worried about all the “dead horses” we might be paying for if cash disappeared.