WASHINGTON – Debt isn't stressing people as much as it had been, but consumers remain gun-shy about embarking on a big holiday spending spree.
An Associated Press-GfK Poll also suggests Americans are more disciplined about using their credit cards. Deep into a stubbornly harsh economic downturn, more people than last year say they pay off their balances right away, and fewer say they make credit card purchases if they lack enough money at the time.
"I use it as cash in my pocket," Richard Kirby, 64, a retiree from Palm Harbor, Fla., said of his card. "We're all tempted. I can buy this, I can buy that, but then you realize you have to pay for it."
Fifty-nine percent said they feel little or no stress from their family's debt from mortgages, credit cards and other loans. That's an improvement from when 49 percent said so a year ago, with women and city residents reporting significantly less tension than last year.
In addition, 52 percent said they seldom or never worry about their financial liabilities, about the same as last year but the first time more than half said so since an AP poll first asked that question in 2004.
"People are essentially adapting to their circumstances," said Joseph Sirgy, a marketing professor at Virginia Tech who studies consumer behavior. He said the change appears to be a combination of people revamping their financial behavior and getting mentally used to tough times.
Some, though, face deeper problems. About 1 in 8 expressed worry about ever getting out of debt, 1 in 5 acknowledged brooding about IOUs all or most of the time and 1 in 10 predicted his or her debts will be a major problem for the next five years.
Federal Reserve data show that total household debt has dipped by 3 percent since its peak in early 2008, as the recession was starting. That reflects both defaults and people paying down their IOUs, analysts say.
Another measure of debt-related anxiety tied to the AP-GfK Poll, the debt stress index, fell to 25, the lowest level since the AP began taking the measurement in 2004. The figure means people are feeling relatively little angst about the money they owe.
Paul J. Lavrakas, a research psychologist and AP consultant who analyzed the AP-GfK survey, said the least worried include people earning more than $75,000 a year, those without children in their households and retired people under age 60. Those most disturbed by their debt include the lowest earning, the better educated and residents of the Northeast.
Just 9 percent in the AP-GfK Poll said they plan to spend more this year on holiday purchases than they did a year ago. Thirty-seven percent said they plan to spend less, down from the 53 percent who said in 2008 that they'd cut holiday spending, while just over half plan to spend the same amount.
"Unfortunately, you have to be disciplined," said letter carrier Shelton Rhodes of Aurora, Colo., who plans to keep his holiday spending at last year's levels. "Otherwise, you get sticker shock when January comes by" and the credit card statements appear.
Consumer spending has grown at its fastest rate in four years but still so modestly that it is having little impact on economic growth or the near-10 percent unemployment rate. Consumer spending is crucial because it powers 70 percent of the country's economic activity, and holiday shopping can be as much as 40 percent of many retailers' revenues and profits.
The poll offered several clues that people are curbing credit card use:
— About 7 in 10 said they have paid off last month's credit card bill or will when it arrives, up from roughly 6 in 10 expressing such plans last year.
— More than 8 in 10 planning to use credit cards for holiday gifts said they expect to pay off those bills when they get the statement, up from two-thirds who said so two years ago.
— Thirteen percent said they buy things with credit cards even when they lack money to pay for it at that time, down from 21 percent a year ago.
"I'm maxed out," said Karen Pellegrin, 36, a web designer from Centennial, Colo., who said she's near her card's $2,000 ceiling despite trying to limit credit card purchases to emergencies. With her husband recently finding a job, she said, "the future looks bright, but it's been a long struggle."
Those in the survey with credit cards typically owed $800, meaning half said they owed more than that and half said less. That compares with $900 last May and $1,000 last year.
According to a report this year by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, there were 610 million credit cards in the U.S. in 2008, the latest figures available. That meant an average of 2.7 cards per adult and 3.5 cards per cardholder.
The AP-GfK Poll was conducted Nov. 3-8 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,000 adults nationwide and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points. It included interviews with 730 people who have credit cards, for whom the margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4.8 points.
AP Polling Director Trevor Tompson, AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius and AP Economics Writer Jeannine Aversa contributed to this report.
AP-GfK Polls: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com