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Americans Appear Comfortable Wallowing in Debt

Written by Posted On Thursday, 13 July 2006 00:00

My wife and I are planning to install solar panels this fall in an effort to reduce our electric -- primarily air conditioning -- bill.

Our state provides a generous rebate for solar installations -- the best deal in the country. In addition, the 2005 Energy Act will give us a tax credit of up to $2,000 if we get it up and running before 2007.

The projected cost of our effort is about $20,000 installed, so we have calculated that we could easily finance our before-rebate cost with a small home-equity line from the credit union.

The last appraisal we had done -- a demonstration of techniques for a story I was writing (I paid for it) -- put the value of our house at more than $600,000 and about $400,000 more than our mortgage balance, so I guess a line of credit wouldn't be asking too much.

Neither of us believes in using home equity for anything but home improvement, although this is the first time in 25 years and three houses that we have ever done so.

Our sons' educations were paid for out of pocket. So are our vacations. So were previous home improvement projects.

I think our financial conservatism is born of hating the idea of indebtedness, passed on from parents who lived through all or part of the Great Depression.

But, according to a Lending Tree survey published last Fall, our attitude appears to be getting rarer.

Living with increasingly higher levels of debt has become an accepted and normal state of affairs, the survey said, and is considered an inevitable and likely permanent feature of everyday life.

The social stigma of high levels of debt is largely gone, the study, conducted by Robert D. Manning, a professor of economics at Rochester Institute of Technology and author of Credit Card Nation.

Many people attribute their willingness to go into debt -- or to take on additional levels of debt -- directly to a dramatic increase in spending on children and grandchildren, the study showed.

Even people who are as old as my parents typically adhere to the "traditional" financial values of thrift and frugality, said they were using credit much more freely when spending on what they feel are "socially expected" lifestyle activities and accessories for their kids.

Consequently, as families save less for college and rely more heavily on student loans, this contributes to higher debt levels among their children, who enter young adulthood with more debt (both student and consumer) than previous generations.

My wife and I decided that the greatest gift we could give our older son was that he graduate from college free of debt, since both of us finished with small student loans. As I said, we are fiscally conservative.

Young families show the continuing generational shift in personal attitudes toward debt, from frugality and thrift to self-indulgence and instant gratification.

The use of consumer credit to fuel spending beyond a person's means to pay in cash is often justified as a well-earned entitlement for hard work and a stressful lifestyle.

Attitudes toward home ownership have changed, Manning's survey showed. The shift has been from simply providing necessary shelter to satisfying both a need and a tangible, secure (and considered near perfect) investment.

This appears to be a shift to an older way of thinking, born, perhaps, of the unreliability of the stock market and other investment vehicles.

In the late 1980s, as the real estate market went into tailspin, a growing number of Americans began investing in the stock market. At one point, surveys showed that 28 percent of Americans were doing so to diversify their portfolios and to have assets that could be sold off more quickly than real estate in a down market.

But the increasing liquidity of real estate assets and periodic downturns in the markets apparently has led many Americans to shift their fortunes back into housing.

Home ownership has become a much more important piece of the overall personal finance equation, with the real or expected appreciation in home equity often considered a financial stabilizer or "way out of trouble," according to Manning's survey.

Many of those who participated in the survey said they felt ill-equipped to make prudent financial decisions, and expressed an explicit desire for practical personal finance education, information and services.

Long-term financial planning, with the exception of buying a house, is largely absent. Few have developed, let alone adhere to, a personal budget, although older groups were more likely than younger groups to do so.

It's not hard to understand why? When I was 25 and single, the world was a ahead of me. At 55, reality sets in.

Another survey I read once pointed out that the greatest fear of Americans 55 and older was that they wouldn't have enough money for retirement.

I guess if we all started thinking about it earlier, we would have fewer things to worry about.

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