Use plastic with caution

Posted: Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The following editorial appeared in the Dallas Morning News:

Unlike past holiday seasons, the consumer love affair with plastic finally may be giving away to something far less seductive - financial prudence.

Layaway plans and paying in cash are making comebacks, and shoppers say they'll be looking for sales and combining trips to save gas. Even conspicuously consuming Texans say they'll try to holiday-shop without running up massive new credit card charges.

What novel ideas - limiting purchases to what you can afford and not a dime more, or making sure to pay off the holiday bill before interest charges and fees kick in. Hmm, an old-fashioned analog approach to spending in the digital world of instant gratification.

Reality has reshaped the shopping psyche, at least for the time being. Many Americans are unemployed or behind on their credit card payments. Card companies are demanding larger minimum payments and imposing higher rates to reap profits before tight new federal regulations take effect next year. Now, more than ever, consumers should use plastic with caution.

Suppose you have $5,000 in credit card debt with a 28 percent interest rate, which is not an uncommon amount for households that carry a monthly balance. Make no more charges, send the minimum payment each month, and you'll pay off that debt in, well, never.

Your prospects of financial freedom are only slightly better at a 15 percent interest rate; in only 24 years you'll be debt-free, after paying $7,246 in interest. Hunker down and pay off the bill in three years, and you'll fork over $1,240 in interest.

If you doubt this, then punch in your card balance at the Federal Reserve's credit card calculator (

Credit card companies don't force Americans to spend beyond their means, but they have made it exceedingly difficult for consumers to fix their broken finances. Card companies are levying higher rates, tighter terms and penalties on even loyal, punctual cardholders.

The good news is that Americans - at least those with jobs - are trying to reduce credit card debt. TransUnion, a credit reporting agency, says late payments this summer declined slightly, a significant occurrence because delinquencies usually rise as people charge expenses for vacations and back-to-school shopping.

This much is certain: If you don't want to pay many times over for Christmas gifts, don't shop till you drop, and leave the plastic at home.

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