Americans have had a long and growing love affair with credit, passionately embracing the buy-now, pay-later life style. This easy-credit atmosphere is trumpeted daily in radio, TV, magazine and newspaper ads, with lending institutions joining credit card companies and retail establishments to solicit new customers.
Unfortunately, however, a lot of people seduced by easy money now are in big trouble.
The Federal Reserve Board reports that Americans are indebted to the tune of $549.9 billion (nearly $2,000 for every person), up from $460.5 billion in 1984, and that doesn't count home mortgages.
It never has been easier to acquire -- and abuse -- credit purchases. Consumer delinquency on repaying these debts is the highest it's been in five years. In 1984, 284,517 Americans filed for bankruptcy. Last year, it was 341,189.
Although illness and job loss are two of the most often cited reasons for credit repayment problems, there has been a big increase in the number of employed persons -- across the earnings and career spectrum -- having trouble meeting their financial obligations. As a way out, they are turning to credit counselors, currently swamped with business.
"My first year in business," says Mary Johnson (not her real name), 29, "I applied for a loan to allow me to have a better cash flow and more of a cushion, and I was turned down flat.
"I sold my automobile to invest in equipment [for her service-oriented business]. I bartended at night and did everything I could to make money.
"A year later, my gross receipts were very, very large, and all of a sudden everyone extended me an incredible amount of credit."
Two years later, Johnson found herself deeply in debt ($12,000, not counting a $10,000 signature loan) and with drastically reduced income. She turned to the Consumer Credit Counseling and Educational Service of Greater Washington Inc. (CCC&ES).
After a year in their debt repayment program, Johnson finds herself still in perilous financial waters, but "I'll have all my debts paid in about three more years.
"I'm now working on a permanent part-time basis for one company, doing telephone marketing in the evenings and doing free-lance work connected with my former business. I'm only making a small monthly dent in my outstanding bills, but I will pay those debts off. And I won't get in trouble like this ever again."
The National Foundation for Consumer Credit Inc. (NFCC), headquartered in Silver Spring, counseled 126,700 families last year in their 256 offices across the nation. Of that number, 60,100 families and individuals entered NFCC's debt-management program, in which a counselor analyzes a specific financial situation and tries to come up with a workable budget and repayment program.
After the counselor has discussed the debt settlement plan with creditors, the consumer is responsible for making regular monthly payments to the counselor, who sends payments to the creditors.
"Our offices returned over $117 million to the American economy on behalf of those 60,100 families," notes NFCC director Mary Quinn.
"Overall," says Quinn, "there's about a 10 percent failure rate, people who get back into trouble. On the other hand, we're very impressed that 90 percent of the people don't fall back into credit problems."
Some of the 10 percent come back into the NFCC program. "They say, 'Well, I'm back in trouble again,' so you almost have to start a double education program," says Quinn. "We're counseling families in every income area, though a lot of people assume this is a low-income program. It isn't. We're counseling $100,000-a-year professionals as well."
"After my husband became a lawyer, I never worried about money," says Lynn Jamison (not her real name), 49, who married after receiving a master's degree from a prestigious university and spending a year in Europe as a Fulbright scholar. "I just went out and bought whatever it was I wanted or needed."
Jamison's husband took care of all money matters, including "budgeting, paying the bills, everything. I knew nothing about handling money after we divorced."
He got the house and she got the two children.
"The divorce was traumatic and I wasn't in the greatest shape when I began working again," says Jamison. Consequently she was in and out of jobs and fell at one, injuring her shoulder and arm.
"For two years I was out of work and my right hand was completely frozen. I couldn't use it at all." She accepted a $30,000 settlement, but after seven operations and other medical complications, she was broke and deeply in debt.
"I wasn't frivolous about it, but I really got into trouble over my use of credit cards. I took cash advances to pay medical bills and living expenses. The medical bills totaled several thousand dollars.
"I considered declaring bankruptcy but fortunately got to CCC&ES. I've been on their debt repayment program for two years now. I've been sending in $200 a month and very shortly am going to move that up to $300.
"My message to others out there is no matter how bleak the picture looks, you can work your financial troubles out. Once you start paying off your debts, you can feel 'I'm doing my job. I'm paying off my debt.' It's a wonderful feeling."
Joanne Kerstetter, excecutive director of CCC&ES, says her organization's four offices "serve an average 3,000 to 4,000 families and individuals each year," adding that those figures probably will be up this year, "because the last six months we saw an increasing number of clients seeking the service."
Among figures cited by Kerstetter and Quinn:
*CCC&ES clients increased by 25 percent over the first six months of 1985, compared with the first six months of 1984.
*The average unsecured debt went up 50 percent, from $5,000 to $7,500.
*The number of credit cards per family went up from an average 4 or 5 to 6 or 7.
"The increased availability of credit," says Kerstetter, "is responsible for a lot of that."
NFCC counseling and debt-management charges are based on a sliding scale. maximum average counseling fee allowed is about $30, debt management about $20 a month.
"The most important information," says Quinn, "is that nobody is ever refused counseling or debt management due to inability to pay."
Kerstetter, whose four offices are a part of the 256-office NFCC network, says they have no fee for counseling. "In Virginia," she adds, "there is no fee for debt management, and in the District and Maryland, the rates are up to $4 per month for debt management." That money is tax deductible and voluntary only. "It goes to help defray postage. No one ever is refused counseling because they can't afford it."
Although CCC&ES is in the process of hiring additional staff, potential clients, says Kerstetter, should count on waiting from four to eight weeks. They also, she suggests, should call and write their creditors and say they are on the waiting list (which they will verify).
"The real message for credit consumers," says NFCC's Mary Quinn, "is, 'Set aside an evening and sit down with your family and examine your income and your expenses and see if you're making any progress at all in saving something. If you're not, if you feel you're stepping two steps forward and three steps backward, perhaps you need to go and get some financial advice from a low-cost, nonprofit consumer credit counselor.
"You won't be alone."