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Poll: Half of Americans worry about debts
Updated: 2004-12-20 09:06

Shoppers are racing from store to store this holiday season, with credit cards clutched tightly in hand and visions of future bills dancing in their heads.

One-half of Americans say they worry about the money they owe, and many say they worry most of the time about their overall debts, an Associated Press poll found.

Those debts can come from home and car loans as well as credit cards even more so with December buying sprees. Three-fourths in the poll said they have credit cards.

Four in 10 of those with credit cards said they will use plastic to help pay for their holiday spending this year, according to the poll conducted for the AP by Ipsos-Public Affairs.

Most of those who are using credit cards said they would pay off their holiday expenses when their next bill arrives.

About one-fourth of those with cards said they use credit for purchases when they do not have the cash.

"I don't like credit cards at all," said Charles Vosburg, a heavy equipment operator from New Lenox, Ill. He used to rely on credit cards to carry him through the winters when work was scarce.

"I've been in trouble with them before. They're all closed out now," Vosburg said.

Most with credit cards said they carefully manage the debts on those cards, which often have high finance charges on unpaid balances. A sizable minority of them admitted to having serious problems with credit cards.

Some 16 percent of those with credit cards said they do not trust themselves to manage their own credit card debts.

For many, their debts cause stress; 20 percent of all adults in the poll said they worry about their debts most of the time.

"We live in an age of easy money and people pull out the plastic to medicate their pain," said Chris Packard, a mental health therapist from Gilbert, Ariz.

"I have had patients who used their credit cards to punish spouses, to appease depression or anxiety or to try to satisfy an out-of-control child," Packard said.

Experiencing the highest levels of stress from debts were people at their credit card spending limit; those who are unmarried and have children; those without jobs; and minorities.

Those with the lowest levels of stress from debt were retirees, Republicans, married people, college graduates and people between age 30 and 49.

Those groups' stress levels were measured based on their responses to a series of questions asked of 1,000 adults about debt and stress.

Paul Lavrakas, a research psychologist, developed those questions on debt stress in the 1990s when he was faculty director of the Ohio State University Center for Survey Research.

Many people asked about their debts say it is affecting their health, Lavrakas said.

"They could not concentrate at times, they were losing sleep, taking their anxiety out on others," Lavrakas said.

About four in 10 of all people questioned said their total debt is at least "somewhat stressful." Also, more than half expect their debt will cause them problems over the next five years.

Tanya Pierson of Brainerd, Minn., learned the dangers of credit cards the hard way. She and her family had a handful of credit cards with big balances.

"We're a lot more cautious since we filed for bankruptcy five years ago," said Pierson, a stay-at-home mom. "I only have one now and I use it every once in a while."

More than 1 million people file for personal bankruptcy each year, said Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America.

"My strong sense from looking at lots of data, is that the number of people with debt problems is declining, but the number with severe debt problems is increasing," he said

The total amount of revolving credit debts, such as that caused by credit cards, was just over $600 billion five years ago and is almost $800 billion now, according to the Federal Reserve.

In the survey, about 10 percent of those with credit cards said they have missed making their minimum payment during the past six months.

Economists say people are missing fewer credit card payments by juggling their debts and getting new credit cards.

In recent years, low interest rates have helped many people to get home equity loans and pay off credit card debts. But that simply shifts the debt around.

One-fourth of those in the poll said they have no credit cards.

For 18-year-old Brandon Terrok of Klamath Falls, Ore., avoiding credit cards is the best approach.

"I've seen people get in trouble. They ran their credit cards so high, they couldn't get approval to buy a car," Terrok said. "I haven't gotten any yet and I'd rather not have them."

The AP-Ipsos poll of 1,000 adults was taken Dec. 6-8. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, slightly larger for the 790 with credit cards.

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