Poll: Half of Americans Worry About Debts

By WILL LESTER, Associated Press Writer                                                                    

WASHINGTON - During a season with shoppers racing about to wrap up holiday spending, half of Americans say they worry about their overall level of debt, an Associated Press poll found.

That includes many — about two in 10 of those surveyed — who say they stay worried about their debt level most or all of the time.

Those debts can come from home and car loans as well as credit cards — even more so with December buying sprees. Three-fourths in the poll said they have credit cards.

Most people who have credit cards say they work to keep control of them, but one in six with cards say they don't trust their own spending with plastic. Young adults and those who make less than $25,000 a year were most likely to doubt their own ability to manage credit cards.

For 18-year-old Brandon Terrok of Klamath Falls, Ore., avoiding credit cards is the best approach.

"I've seen people get in trouble. They ran their credit cards so high, they couldn't get approval to buy a car," Terrok said. "I haven't gotten any yet and I'd rather not have them."

Most who have credit cards say they try to keep those card debts under control. But some still have trouble.

One-fourth of credit card users say they use plastic to buy things when they don't have the money.

Tanya Pierson of Brainerd, Minn., learned the dangers of credit cards the hard way. She and her family had a handful of cards with big balances.

"We're a lot more cautious since we filed for bankruptcy five years ago," said Pierson, a stay-at-home mom. "I only have one now and I use it every once in a while."

More than 1 million people file for personal bankruptcy each year, said Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America.

"My strong sense from looking at lots of data, is that the number of people with debt problems is declining, but the number with severe debt problems is increasing," he said.

The total amount of revolving credit debt, such as that caused by credit cards, was just over $600 billion five years ago and is almost $800 billion now, according to the Federal Reserve (news - web sites).

In the survey, about 10 percent of those with credit cards said they have missed making their minimum payment during the past six months.

Economists say people are missing fewer credit card payments by juggling their debts and getting new credit cards.

In recent years, low interest rates have helped many people get home equity loans and pay off credit card debts. But that simply shifts the debt around.

"We live in an age of easy money and people pull out the plastic to medicate their pain," said Chris Packard, a mental health therapist from Gilbert, Ariz.

"I have had patients who used their credit cards to punish spouses, to appease depression or anxiety or to try to satisfy an out-of-control child," Packard said.

Experiencing the highest levels of stress from debts were people at their credit card spending limit, those who are unmarried and have children, those without jobs and minorities.

Those with the lowest levels of stress from debt were retirees, Republicans, married people, college graduates and people between age 30 and 49.

Those groups' stress levels were measured based on their responses to a series of questions asked of 1,000 adults about debt and stress.

Paul Lavrakas, a research psychologist, developed the questions in the 1990s when he was faculty director of the Ohio State University Center for Survey Research.

People say they experience health problems when worried about debts, Lavrakas said: "They could not concentrate at times, they were losing sleep, taking their anxiety out on others."

About four in 10 of all people questioned said their total debt is at least "somewhat stressful." Also, more than half expect their debt will cause them problems over the next five years.

"I don't like credit cards at all," said Charles Vosburg, a heavy equipment operator from New Lenox, Ill. He used to rely on them to carry him through the winters, when work was scarce.

"I've been in trouble with them before," Vosburg said. "They're all closed out now."

The AP-Ipsos poll of 1,000 adults was taken Dec. 6-8. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, slightly larger for the 790 people with credit cards.

Trevor Tompson, Associated Press manager of news surveys, contributed to this story.

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