Monday, December 13, 2010

More shoppers avoiding credit cards this year... lenders load traps

Friday's NY Times Business section included an article on consumers shifting from credit cards to cash budgets this holiday spending season. (h/t Kendall Harmon, TitusOneNine)

"The lowest percentage of shoppers in the 27-year-history of a national survey said they used credit cards over the Thanksgiving weekend, while the use of general credit cards like Visa and MasterCard fell 11 percent in the third quarter from a year earlier, according to the credit bureau TransUnion."

The article includes examples of the havoc and healing experienced by people who suffered the consequences of past credit card shopping and have moved to a cash budget approach for this year's gift buying. Many of their accounts support the arguments in Bishop Paul Peter Jesep's Credit Card Usury and the Christian Failure to Stop It:

"Financial stress can negatively - even severely - impact things outside of your wallet: your health, your job, and your relationships," confirmed David Alecock, a vice president of InCharge Institute, a non-profit credit counseling organization. Ted Hagen, PhD, a family psychologist and authors Judi Light Hopson and Emma H. Hopson, R.N. of Burnout to Balance: EMS Stress cited in an op-ed a debt counselor who described some seeking help as so anxious that they were exploring death as an option. The counselor also concluded, as have other experts, that credit card debt is destroying families and friendships.

Nevertheless, lenders who depend upon heavy interest (usury), card fees and penalties are trying to lure people back into bad habits, as detailed by the Times:

When people overspend, credit card issuers reap profit from consumers who pay only part of their bills. Shoppers using retailers’ branded cards tend to spend more and visit stores more, said Robert S. Drbul, an analyst at Barclays Capital. So all are offering big incentives to get people to use plastic.

The Chase Freedom and Discover More cards, for instance, are offering $100 bonuses when new credit card customers spend a certain amount within the first three months, along with 5 percent cash back on holiday purchases at department stores and other categories.

Citibank is giving Dividend cardholders 5 percent back on spending at department, clothing and electronics stores through Dec. 31. Target is giving its cardholders a 5 percent discount on purchases, Neiman Marcus is advertising extra rewards points on most purchases on certain days this month, and Sears has been running a variety of no-payment, no-interest offers on its credit cards throughout the holidays.

Bishop Jesep criticizes this marketing of debt, moving from Consumer Reports and statistics to a summary of ancient and current Christian critiques:

Even if the plight of debtors is in part by their own making it still doesn't excuse "luring consumers into debt waters," as Consumer Reports noted, "well over their head..." Creditors can't blame the class they created "then punish" them with "significantly higher interest rates and fees"...

...In 2009, $20.5 billion in penalty fees on credit cards will be assessed...

...Basil of Caesarea (330-379), Gregory of Nyssa (330-395), and Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389) were among the early church leaders to speak against usury...

...In July 2009, Pope Benedict XVI issues the encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth). In it the Bishop of Rome warned against profit becoming an exclusive goal. He noted that "if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty... dignity of the individual and the demands of justice require that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner..."

...Although it's been unconvincingly argued that better regulating interest rates will deprive the poor or lower middle class access to credit, it seems disingenuous when a constant revenue source is created through high interest... Credit card companies, by the way, refer to those who pay off debt each month as "deadbeats" and "freeloaders" ... profit models are now based on the expectation that consumers don't pay off debt each month.

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