Consumer Corner: As bills pile up, consumers are learning to prioritize

By MARCELLA S. KREITER, United Press International  |  March 4, 2012 at 4:30 AM
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More than a third of Americans say they're struggling to pay bills, with some resorting to urgent, same-day payments to stay current, a poll indicates.

The Western Union Payments quarterly Money Mindset Index also found 31 percent of the 3,078 people queried in December said they're waiting longer to pay bills, with 21 percent saying more payments are missing their due dates. Nevertheless, 14 percent said they planned to reward themselves this year with vacations, electronics and dining out.

Thirty-eight percent said paying bills is a struggle but 60 percent said they manage to pay all their bills on time. Fully half of those queried said they are more stressed about meeting their financial obligations and 22 percent said they have trouble managing their spending, had been turned down for credit or loans and were being hounded by collection agencies.

What bill gets put to the bottom of the stack first? Seventeen percent said student loans. Only 5 percent said they do that to life, homeowners or health insurance.

"This is an age-old problem," said David Shapiro, Western Union senior vice president for marketing. "But I think that as we get into a financial crisis, it affects people who have not seen this before. … There are more options now [to get those payments in on time] than in past generations.

"Typically people have a way of prioritizing [their bills]," putting mortgage, auto loans, credit cards, utilities and insurance at the top of the heap, he said.

Generation Y is more likely to pay bills at the last minute, often resorting to an online biller (33 percent), phone call (26 percent) or trip to the biller's office (25 percent), the survey found.

"Generation Y typically has a few more bills [than other households], two more than average," said Cynthia Walliser, director of payments marketing for Western Union Global Consumer Financial Services, who created the survey. "Still they prioritize the same way, [considering] late fees and negative credit consequences."

Walliser said the economy has forced people to become better money managers.

The survey, conducted by Javelin Strategy & Research, had a margin of error of 1.8 percentage points.

Statistics show the average U.S. household is carrying credit card debt of $15,956 with an average annual percentage rate of 12.78 percent (as of November) and a 30-day delinquency rate of 2.83 percent.

The New York Federal Reserve reported last week aggregate consumer debt fell $126 billion to $11.53 trillion in the fourth quarter of 2011, down 1.1 percent from the third quarter. Balances on mortgage and home equity lines of credit fell a combined $146 billion after a mild uptick in the third quarter, with total household delinquency rates resuming their downward trend in the fourth quarter.

The report found $1.12 trillion of consumer debt -- 9.8 percent of outstanding debt -- is delinquent, with $824 billion at least 90 days late.

"While we continue to see improvements in the delinquent balances and delinquency transition rates this quarter, there has been a noticeable decrease in the rate of improvement compared to 2009-10," Andrew Haughwout, vice president and economist at the New York Fed, said in a statement. Still, he said, delinquency rates are much higher than before the economy tanked in 2008.

The Chicago Fed reported recently consumption during the recession fell to its lowest level since World War II and the recovery has been "uncharacteristically weak," taking three full years to return to pre-recession levels, largely because income levels have yet to recover.

"Relative to previous recessions, those with higher levels of income and education are more pessimistic coming out of this recession than their poorer and less-educated counterparts," the Chicago Fed said, adding there is little expectation of real income growth and fears of inflation.

"Since expected income growth is a very important determinant of consumption decisions, the observed drop in expected income has the potential to explain at least part of the observed decline in consumption," the Chicago Fed said.

Shapiro said he thinks the lessons learned during the recession won't soon be forgotten and the whole I-want-it-now-and-will-pay-for-it-later mentality will likely not return for some time.

"While consumer confidence may be up, the actual translation into financial well-being is going take a little longer," he said.

The University of Illinois Flash Index released Thursday indicates the economy is improving, hitting its highest level since November 2008 -- 99.2, remaining below break-even.

"The recovery remains relatively weak, especially in regard to unemployment rates," said J. Fred Giertz, who compiles the index for the U of I's Institute of Government and Public Affairs.

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