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HOLIDAY HORRORS : Why Shoppers Go for Broke : Good old-fashioned guilt is one reason many people spend more than they can afford at this time of the year.

December 20, 1990|LEO SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you count today, there are still five shopping days left before you-know-what. That means there is still ample time to get Jenny that red tricycle, Jimmy those blue shorts and Aunt Gertrude the foot massager. Which means there is plenty of time to extend your savings account to--and beyond--the breaking point.

Even in these uncertain economic times, when retail business is suffering from sluggish sales, local experts say many people are likely spending themselves to the limit.

What's to blame for this? Basically, it's the old "holiday spirit."

Sharon Potter, a marriage, family and child counselor in Westlake Village and Simi Valley, said shoppers' attempts to return to childhood are a primary cause of overspending.

"Everything was a wonder when we were children--things were endless and free and there were no responsibilities," she said. "Sometimes we go out and spend to relive that time for ourselves."

Potter said feelings of guilt enter into it as well.

"We would have liked to have given throughout the year, but we don't and this is how we make up for it," she said. "It's out of obligation, too. It's like the more things you have in the refrigerator, the better cook you are. The more things you have under the tree, the better friend, or daughter, you are."

Aside from such feelings, there is another powerful factor in overspending: the credit card.

"If people want something, they say, 'OK, if cash is short, I'm going to get the money one way or another,' " said David (Tony) Kirkpatrick, a certified financial planner in Ventura. "I think it's indicative of the economy that if people have less cash, they are going to go out and buy on credit."

Case in point: Michael Vasquez, supervisor of customer relations in the central credit department of the May Co. and Robinson's, said the department store chains have been receiving about 4,000 calls a day from holiday shoppers who want their limits raised. He said this is about double last year's number.

"There's a lot of emphasis by stores to put things on credit as if somehow if you don't have to pay for it now, that you don't have to pay for it at all," Ventura psychologist John Nightingale said. "It's illusionary. If you don't have to deal with it right away, it's kind of like funny money."

And many stores are enticing customers further with offers of "buy now and no payments until spring."

"My wife and I have systematic savings plans targeted toward our retirement and our children's education," Kirkpatrick said. "If I went out and overspent and really had to pay the piper in March and April, I might have to discontinue those long-term plans to pay for the short-term wins."

Kirkpatrick recalled a married couple with a combined annual income of $80,000 and a credit debt of $29,700. Nightingale told of a lower-middle-income family that each year "would spend significantly beyond their needs and go into debt, and it would take a significant part of the year to pay off the credit card bill."

Financial adviser Ruth Rockey from Westlake Village said consumers at all economic levels are susceptible to overspending. "Americans are known to be able to spend 110% of what they make no matter what they make, even the upper echelon," she said.

While many Americans are taking advantage of the willingness of department stores and credit card companies to raise credit limits during the holidays, others are finding alternative shopping sources.

"Competition is a lot harder this year than it's ever been," said Diana Greene, owner of Best Dressed for Less, a secondhand clothing store in Ventura. Green said she has seen a 30% increase in sales over the last holiday season. "You have to be very competitive pricewise. Even major department stores are having sales. People are shopping off-price and looking for markdowns."

Most of the thrift shops and pawnshops in the area have seen sales hold at a level normal for this time of year, while others have seen an increase in business.

Cindy Escoto of Piru said she is doing most of her shopping in discount stores and trying to avoid major department stores. "I've got my cards paid up," she said, "and I'd like to keep them that way."

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