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Perspective | With vaccinations underway, the economy needs consumers to spend again. But don’t, if you have debt.


It’s a prudent move to stay cautious, as new variants of the coronavirus are cropping up and the number of reported covid-19 deaths has surpassed 500,000 in the United States.

But the economy can’t fully recover until consumers do what they do best in America. Consumer spending can lift the economy overall, but it would be a shame if people went back to normal and forgot some important financial lessons forced on them because of the pandemic.

“Clearly, businesses of many shapes and sizes are in need of or are eager to embrace the consumers that they’ve been missing for so long,” said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst for Bankrate. “And we’ve seen enterprises of all kinds go belly up during this time. And so it is important, obviously, for the consumer to reengage. But spending needs to be sustainable for the individuals. If consumers go overboard, then they’re going to run into an economic recovery hangover of their own.”

Hamrick is concerned, as I am, that the broader need for businesses to put people back to work so that they can feed their families, pay for their housing and hopefully have some money left over to save for their future financial needs will conflict with the necessity that many people continue being frugal.

Only 39 percent of Americans could cover an unexpected $1,000 expense from their savings, such as a car repair or emergency-room bill, according to a separate survey from Bankrate released last month.

The overwhelming majority would end up in debt: 38 percent of U.S. adults said they would have to borrow the money, 18 percent would need to use a credit card they couldn’t pay off right away, and 12 percent would borrow from family or friends. The remaining folks would reduce spending to find the money they need to handle the financial emergency.

For those spendthrifts whose incomes weren’t affected by the coronavirus crisis, the pandemic pause created an opportunity for them to change their ways.

Since last March, as the coronavirus crashed an almost decade-long consumer spending spree, people attending the monthly financial workshops I hold — now virtually — have testified about getting out of debt at last while being stuck at home. Folks finally have emergency funds. They’ve paid off their auto loans early or are contributing to a 529 college investment fund for their children.

Just two months into 2021, workshop participants who follow the financial principles I’ve taught them reported paying off close to $200,000 in debt.

Before the pandemic, consumer credit card debt grew for eight consecutive years, reaching a record high of $829 billion in 2019, according to data collected by Experian, one of the three major credit bureaus. After the coronavirus hit, debt wasn’t just dropping — people were also using less of their credit lines, Experian found. The average consumer credit utilization ratio (how much you currently owe divided by your credit limit) dropped to 25 percent, the lowest it’s been in at least 10 years, according to Experian.

The U.S. personal savings rate soared in April of last year, reaching nearly 34 percent. It’s fallen since then, dropping to 13.7 percent in December, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

“Americans aren’t sure when they will return to normal, pre-COVID levels of activity for things like dining in at restaurants and attending in-person gatherings outside their household,” according to a recent Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index poll. “For both items, around one in four say they don’t know when they will do this, and then people are split on whether the signifier is when they/their circle are vaccinated, when health officials say it is safe, or if they have already done this.”

Meanwhile, Hamrick said he’s also worried that many consumers, once they feel safer about venturing out to retail stores and restaurants, will engage in “revenge spending” to make up for the isolation they’ve experienced since the coronavirus hit the United States.

Parents will give their children even bigger birthday parties. Families will take expensive vacations. Holiday spending at the end of this year will soar as people overspend after having to celebrate giftless with relatives on Zoom.

We need to have our own social safety net,” Hamrick said. “I want to remind people that they should try to prioritize their savings and to pay down debt.”

The have-nots were struggling before the pandemic and business shutdowns and slowdowns have made their financial situation even more precarious. They have no choice but to continue to pull back on their spending.

But you — the fortunate ones who can afford to save — shouldn’t relapse to retail therapy. Keep paying off those credit card balances. Scale back that big wedding. When things get back to normal, you shouldn’t rush to the malls. You were scared straight during the pandemic, and that was the best thing for your financial security.

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