Olive and Bill Overholt are quick to point out that excessive borrowing is not a new phenomenon.
Both of their families learned about the consequences of too much borrowing the hard way -- Bill's father lost his Iowa farm in the 1890s, and both Olive's family and Bill's family lost farms during the Great Depression. For that reason and others, Olive, 86, and Bill, 93, only pay cash. Married since 1922, the Alexandria couple never has bought anything -- not even the house they once owned -- on credit.
Their children and their grandchildren are different, using credit for both routine and major purposes. Even so, the Overholts are not concerned about their children's and grandchildren's use of credit, largely because they are confident that the younger family members are borrowing wisely.
But the Overholts do worry about credit. They worry about the hefty reliance on borrowing in the economy as a whole -- by government, farmers and consumers.
"I can't help but feel there is going to be a grand smash again like 1929," Bill said. "I know they say it can't happen, but they said then things were getting better . . . I'm terribly pessimistic, both about our public debt and the farm debt. Inflated credit is as bad as inflated currency. We were in China during the inflation and crash of the finances there. We had a very good education on what can happen."
"We see so many people overbuying and getting in too deep," Olive added. "I'm sure our son's family keeps up to date on their payments every month, but a lot of people don't do that. They are getting in too deep."
Bill, met Olive in 1920 in the Chicago office of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Methodist Church. Both born and bred in Iowa, they married two years later in Fayette, Iowa, and in 1924, they went to China together to work as missionaries.
Bill utilized his Iowa farm background to teach the Chinese about modern agriculture, and in addition, he and Olive taught school. Bill still uses his farm background, tending the gardens at Alexandria's Hermitage retirmement home where he and Olive live.
The Overholts lived in China until 1937, when they returned to the U.S. for a visit that turned into a longer stay after the war began in Asia. While they were in China they had learned about America's Great Depression through personal letters and the press and had sent money to support their families.
Ironically, Olive and Bill had benefited from the economic upheaval because their salaries were raised automatically when the value of the dollar dropped on foreign exchange markets.
But based on his parents' experience during the Depression, Bill is sharply critical of today's borrowing by farmers. "The farmers of that time were exactly like the farmers now. They didn't use their judgment in carrying their debts . . .
"My father was a farm lad in southeast Iowa, and when he got 21 years old his father gave him a team of horses and a wagon and some machinery, and he struck out for northwest Iowa where his brother was . . . Father taught school in the winters. They Bill Overholt's parents were married in 1883 and had an 80 acre farm for about 10 years, and came the Depression of the 90s; he couldn't handle his debt.
"He worked out a deal with his banker to take over a 160-acre farm about 40 miles farther out away from civilization. This 160 acres was about half prairie land, native prairie. When I was 4 years old in 1896, we moved into this farm with just a little 14-by-24 foot house, one story, two rooms and a lean-to kitchen. We had five children and a cat in this little house. We had to empty out our water at night; it would freeze solid in the night. We had all sorts of hardships. Hail storms destroyed the crops one summer, the hogs died of cholera, but father carried on.
"When you come to finances, the contrast with today is that father went to town one day and came back and mother whispered behind her hand, 'Did you get it?' 'It' was a loan. We children weren't supposed to know that father got a loan. But father got his loan and carried on."
Eventually, Bill's father traded the farm for one half its size near Des Moines, carrying the same $8,000 mortgage.
"Then the Depression came in the '30s," Bill recalled. "If he could have hung on for another six months, I think he could have gotten government financing. But he didn't, and the farm was gone."
Over the years, the Overholts have invested conservatively. Perhaps one reason was their first and only speculative investment. In the early 1930s, they put 1,000 Chinese dollars (equivalent then to $300 in America) into a Shanghai investment company. They lost it all. During the years they spent in the United States between stints in China, Bill often brooded over his loss. But when they returned to China after the war, the loss seemed less important. Because of the rampant inflation that had occurred in the interim, 1,000 Chinese dollars was only enough to buy a piece of pie, Bill noted.
They fared better when they bought their retirement home -- "a nice little brick house" -- in Brevard, N.C. They paid $13,500 -- all cash -- in 1962 and, thanks to inflation, sold the two-bedroom house in 1973 for $20,000.
Today, with no debt and plenty of income, Olive and Bill fare well and have for about 30 years in retirement.
They have interest income from savings, income from Social Security and a pension from the Methodist Board, which also covers the couple's medical expenses. They do not rely on their children for any financial support. Bill said they plan to donate their savings to the church when they die because "it came from them and it should go back to them."
"I think of myself as rich now because we are so well-fixed here," Bill said. "We have no medical expenses. They even pay my deductions from Social Security for Medicare. So we are millionaires."