What will massive debt mean for young consumers' spending power and retailers

Posted: Friday, March 08, 2002

NEW YORK (AP)-- Tamara Weber, 25, saddled with $22,000 in college loans and $6,500 in credit card debt, has stopped impulse spending and postponed buying a car and other big-ticket items so she can pay down her debt.

Jessica Coleman, 23, faced with $4,500 in credit card debt and a $300 monthly car payment, has put off buying a computer and an armoire. She's scouring for bargains at TJ Maxx and Ross Stores and eats salads at TGI Fridays instead of dining on steaks at fancy French restaurants.

''I really have to budget now,'' said Coleman, a Santa Monica, Calif., resident, who used to splurge on a new outfit with each paycheck.

And Weber, a Tampa, Fla., resident who hopes to be debt-free by 2007, said, ''Spending on frivolous items is not my biggest concern right now.''

Weber and Coleman, both of whom got caught up in credit card companies' marketing pitches on college campuses, are among the growing ranks of recent graduates who must bid farewell to their days of liberal spending.

But there are plenty of other consumers under age 30 who continue to rack up credit card debt, jeopardizing their financial future, industry observers said.

Some analysts wonder about the impact young consumers' rising debt will ultimately have on this generation's future spending power, and consequently what it will mean to merchants counting on them to keep sales churning.

''It will be very interesting to see how these young people manage their debt levels while at the same time making investment in their future, such as buying a house,'' said Jennifer Black, a retail analyst at Wells Fargo Securities LLC.

Black believes retailers including AnnTaylor Loft, TJ Maxx, Target, Express, Hennes & Mauritz and Kohl's should continue to do well, meeting consumers' desire for low-priced goods. Higher-priced stores including Banana Republic, BCBG and J. Crew could face some challenges, she said.

''It raises a whole new set of questions on how this generation will shape their American dream,'' said Robert Manning, a professor of humanities at the Rochester Institute of Technology and author of ''Credit Card Nation.''

Manning and others are closely watching college seniors, who face a recession-weakened job market as they carry heavy debt loads.

A recent report by the General Accounting Office, an arm of Congress, revealed that approximately half of college graduates leave school with about $19,400 in student loans. And Nellie Mae, the student loan agency, found its student customers carried an average credit card debt of $2,748 in 2000, up from $1,879 in 1998.

C. Britt Beemer, chairman of Charleston, S.C.-based America's Research Group, estimates that the under-30 age group has an average credit card debt of $10,000 to $12,000, up 50 percent from five years ago.

And it's hard to work that debt down -- even as they reach 30, some consumers are struggling.

Janet Roberts, 30-year-old school teacher from Englewood, N.J., is still dealing with the consequences of liberal credit card spending in her early 20s. In addition to student loans of $42,000, she has credit card debt of about $7,000.

Roberts rents an apartment with her sister and can't foresee buying her own home until she is 33, six years later than she had planned. Instead of buying a new Ford Explorer, she opted for a used 1998 model.

Many of the consumers in their 20s are more comfortable with incurring debt than their baby boomer parents, according to John Waskin, president and founder of the national non-profit American Credit Counselors Corp., whose clients are primarily in the 28 to 32 age group.

''This generation is accumulating debt because there is no stigma to it, nor is there a stigma toward filing for bankruptcy,'' Waskin said. ''The older generation is very remorseful that they can't pay their debts. ... The younger ones have a sense of entitlement.''

But consumers like Weber and Coleman are determined to resolve their credit problems and change their spending habits in their 20s -- before their debt gets out of hand.

That means going downscale. ''I am not able to go to high stores like Neiman Marcus, or Bebe or BCBG,'' Weber said.

Coleman said she's forgoing her favorite store, Fred Segal, an upscale trendy retailer in Los Angeles.

But plenty of retailers continue to make it easier for young consumers to keep spending beyond their means with credit marketing incentives, according to Candace Corlett, a principal at WSL Strategic Retail, a market research firm.

''All of them are reinforcing the credit card culture,'' she said.

Banana Republic recently sent out a mailer to its credit card customers, offering $20 off any purchase charged on their card. Using the card also allows the customer to earn points toward $15 award certificates.

Rooms To Go, a national furniture store chain based in Seffner, Fla., is targeting first-time home buyers in their 20s and early 30s by offering a no-payment, zero-percent financing plan until September 2003. In the past, similar offers lasted for about 12 months to 15 months, according to Jeffrey Seaman, president.

But such enticements are being ignored by Weber, determined to become debt-free.

''I just say 'no,''' she said.

End adv for Friday, March 8

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