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Are consumers really abstaining from credit cards?

Person pulls debit or credit card from wallet.

TEXT OF STORY

Tess Vigeland: Happy Thanksgiving weekend, also known as 'Americans lose their heads at the mall' weekend. Of course, if you've been listening to this show for a while, then I trust you've put together a holiday budget, set aside some cash for Santa, etc., you know the drill. In fact, we were heartened this week to come across a coupke of surveys that said consumers are planning to hold back on pulling out the plastic this season. After we patted ourselves on the back, we said, wait a minute -- really? Really?

So we asked Marketplace's Nancy Marshall Genzer to investigate.


Nancy Marshall Genzer: One of the latest holiday spending surveys from Harris Interactive, says 69 percent of consumers will avoid credit cards. NPD Group retail analyst Marshal Cohen got a similar result in his fall survey. Cohen says consumers are forced to be frugal.

Marshal Cohen: The unavailability of credit or the difficulty in getting credit cards, or continuing their balance on their cards, are what's really going to drive the consumer to use more cash.

Cohen says if consumers could get their hands on more credit, they'd use it. Frank Badillo has a slightly different take. He's senior economist at Kantar Retail. He says, sure, toward the beginning of the financial crisis, consumers weren't using credit as much because they couldn't get it. But now, part of the credit caution is voluntary. People have credit cards. They're just not going to use them. Badillo says baby boomers are the biggest tightwads.

Frank Badillo: Their wealth really took a hard hit from the recession. They're far more focused than other generations on rebuilding that wealth.

Still, even Badillo says you have to take consumer surveys with a whopping grain of salt. Sure, they're going to put away their credit cards. They're going to stay within their budgets. That's right. And I'm going to run for president. And you'll be my running mate. Yeah, right. I wanted to ask shoppers about credit cards myself. So I went to the mall at Union Station in downtown Washington.

Sure enough, all of the shoppers I talked to said they were shunning their credit cards. Although the cards are still in their wallets. For emergencies. MaryAnn Steffes was shopping for her mom when she stopped to talk. She's sticking to the debit card, she says. But what if she finds that perfect gift, and doesn't have enough cash on hand?

MaryAnn Steffes: I am a sucker for buying things for other people. That will be my downfall. If I see something perfect for somebody else, I would be more ready to whip out the credit card, for something like that.

That jives with what retail analyst Marshal Cohen told me. If consumers have a credit card in their wallet, they'll use it. Still, these analysts say it'll be several more years before we get back to the heyday of credit card spending. Before the financial crisis hit.

In Washington, I'm Nancy Marshall Genzer for Marketplace Money.

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

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