Olive and Bill Overholt have lived through startling changes in American spending and saving habits since their births in the late 1800s.

Perhaps nowhere are those changes reflected better than in the three generations of their own Northern Virginia family.

The Overholts grew up in an era in which consumers paid cash. They have never had a loan -- not even to buy the only home they ever owned, in North Carolina.

"We have always been people that wouldn't buy on credit," commented Olive Overholt in a recent interview. "We have always paid cash. It is almost part of our religion."

Their children and grandchildren, on the other hand, easily use credit. Their son, Martin, has borrowed money to buy his home and cars. Their granddaughter, Susan Johnson, and her husband readily use 14 credit cards.

This week, Susan and Tom, in the words of their grandfather, will go "in debt to their heels," as they expect to complete the $84,500 purchase of a Fairfax townhouse. They will borrow $82,600.

The differences that are apparent in the three generations of Virginia's Overholt family reflect America's changing financial habits. From generation to generation, Americans have grown increasingly dependent on credit to the point that today they are borrowing at a greater rate than ever before.

To illustrate how consumers have changed their spending habits over the years, The Washington Post selected a family in the metropolitan area to discuss attitudes toward spending, saving and investing and the habits those attitudes have engendered. Stories about how three generations of Overholts use credit begin on Page 2.

The Overholt family was chosen after talking to several families suggested by local churches and senior-citizen organizations. The financial habits of each generation exemplify the changes that have been taking place in the country during the past century.

The Iowa-born Overholts moved here four years ago from their retirement home in North Carolina to be closer to their son, Martin, a United Airlines ticket agent at National Airport. The Overholts live at the Hermitage in Northern Virginia, a continuing-care retirement home. Martin lives four miles away in Arlington with his wife, JoAnn, and their two teen-age children.

Susan Johnson -- Martin's daughter from a previous marriage -- lives a few miles away in Fairfax with her husband Tom and their two toddlers. Tom works in the operations center of the international satellite consortium, Intelsat, while Susan, a former school teacher, concentrates on raising the children.

From the first generation through the third, it is clear that the family has passed on consistent attitudes about money. For one thing, none of them is striving to be the next J. P. Morgan. As Bill Overholt noted, "money has never been a motive with me."

What's more, all try to keep careful tabs of their expenses to make sure they don't overspend. All live comfortably, but as they all note, they don't buy the fanciest cars or consumer gadgets.

And none feels entirely at ease using credit, although borrowing has increased significantly with each successive generation.

As Susan Johnson noted, "When I use credit cards, it's always with the idea that I am going to pay them off as soon as I possibly can. It makes me nervous having too much credit."

Nonetheless, the economic demands of today, coupled with the desire to live comfortably and fashionably, make it almost impossible for the Johnsons to live without debt.

Even before their $82,500 mortgage, the Johnsons were feeling the pinch: frequently, they were unable to pay off their credit-card balances for months at a time, and ran them up to $800.

Susan's father, Martin, also found himself running up his MasterCard bill to the point that he was unable to pay it off every month as he would have liked. "I would have to go to my savings and pay it all off,"' he recalled. "This happened two or three times and finally, we had to stop it," he said, noting he canceled his MasterCard.

Overall, all three generations note that, while they are far from being millionaires, they live comfortably and are happy with what they have. As JoAnn Overholt said, "we're not rich, but we feel rich."