Credit Card Taboo in Gen Y

By Chris Metinko

NEW YORK ( MainStreet)-- While Americans may not mind using their credit cards, they apparently mind talking about them.

A recent survey -- conducted by CreditCards.com -- revealed about 85% of Americans are reluctant to talk about their credit card debt with someone they first met. That is a sharp increase from an identical poll in 2008 when 80% said they would be standoffish about the topic.

"High debt is a badge of shame even when many of us share the pain of a struggling economy," said Michael Solomon, professor of marketing and director of the Center for Consumer Research at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. "Unlike physical problems, it seems like an ailment we brought upon ourselves. It implies a weakness of character and of course since we play the game of life using dollars as points, it also erodes our competitive spirit."

The amount of debt carried on one's credit card is more of a taboo topic than even details of one's love life and one's salary -- which 84% and 80% of respondents said they would be reluctant to talk about. More than 1,000 adults took part in the survey.

"I don't believe it's become more of a negative," said Larry Compeau, professor of consumer behavior at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y. "Debt has always been frowned upon."

Compeau said there are several factors that play into debt's negative connotation, including an implied lack of self-control. Another factor is America's Protestant ethic, where "you are what you earn." Therefore a person's inability to make sufficient money for one's needs is seen as a failure.

"And no one likes being seen as a failure, obviously," Compeau said.

However, the survey found attitudes toward debt may be changing. The study found older generations are more reluctant to talk about their credit card debt. About 87% of those ages 50 to 64 said they were uncomfortable with the topic, compared to 79% of those ages 18 to 24.

Part of the change in attitude could be the fact young people are getting into more debt. A recent Ohio State University study found a person born between 1980 and 1984 has credit card debt on average $5,689 higher than his or her parents at the same stage of life, and $8,156 higher than his or her grandparents.

"Changing attitudes are one factor in this," said Lucia Dunn, co-author of the study and professor of economics at Ohio State. "I think debt has been gentrified by the media, Madison Avenue and the American retail sector. Basically, businesses have an incentive to make consumers willing to take on debt to enhance their sales. So the 'fly now, pay later' attitude has been pushed heavily in advertising for decades."

Compeau added changes in culture, such as social media, also have likely changed the definition of privacy for many young people, therefore making them more open about things such as debt.

"I think you have a whole generation with a different concept of 'private,'" Compeau said.

There also is the theory debt has become so common, many younger people have started to just shrug it off.

"Anecdotally, I think this is not as big an issue among Millennials," Solomon said. "They have gone through their formative years during a time when debt is much more common, so it's not at all unusual to know people in debt or certainly to read about high rollers who fell off the tracks.

"Also, I think this generation has learned -- rightly or wrongly -- that bad things are not their fault -- after all it's all about preserving self-esteem and even games they play in school are structured so there are no 'winners.'" Solomon said. "They seem to be more group-oriented so excessive debt is a symptom of their age group, not a reflection of their own mismanagement."

Nevertheless, Federal Reserve numbers in recent years show some people's feelings about debt finally may be having an effect on their spending. Since 2008, when the country started in recession, consumers have curtailed credit card spending, according to the Federal Reserve. The overall amount of credit card debt dropped 8.8% in 2009 and 7.6% in 2010, before leveling out in recent years. In February, Americans owed $848 billion in revolving debt -- almost all in the form of credit card debt.

Written by Chris Metinko for MainStreet

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