More customers resume using old-fashioned cash

NEW YORK — Cash or credit? For more Americans, who already have maxed out their credit cards or are just trying to manage their spending better in the tough economy, the answer increasingly is the old-fashioned one.

Retailers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp. and J.C. Penney Co. are noticing a marked shift away from credit cards in favor of cash and debit cards. A big factor is less credit available as major card issuers cut spending limits and raise fees even for customers who pay their bills on time.

The shift ends Americans' long love affair with credit cards and is one of the changes in consumer behavior that has emerged since the financial meltdown that could depress consumer spending this holiday season and affect shoppers' habits long afterward.

Particularly during holiday seasons past, shoppers could count on a pile of plastic to give them the extra financing needed to splurge on presents before they had to face the bills in January or later.

But even when the economy recovers and credit loosens up, analysts say Americans — shaped by what could be a deep and long-lasting recession — likely are to stick with buying only what they can afford just as their parents or grandparents did after the Great Depression.

"I think this is a new way of life," said Robert Smith, of Loves Park, Ill., who along with his wife has been using cash and debit cards to finance their spending, including vacations, since they paid off their credit card debts in July. "I like to be able to know that we paid for something. I hate monthly payments when you use a credit card."

While the credit crunch is teaching consumers to be more "financially prudent," it's creating a lot of pain for both consumers and stores, said Curtis Arnold, founder of

One sign of how strapped consumers are for credit — and buying only what they have the cash for — is that for the first time in 17 years, Penney's has seen swings in spending around payday cycles over the past three months.

That's common for discounters like Wal-Mart, but a rarity for a mall-based department store. Penney's President and Chief Merchandising Officer Ken Hicks noted the chain hasn't seen swings in spending around payday since about 1991, when the U.S. was entering a recession

At Wal-Mart, the volatility in spending around payday — a drop in spending in the days before, followed by spending bursts right afterward — has become even more pronounced since September. Chief Financial Officer Tom Schoewe told The Associated Press that shoppers are now unable to buy even necessities in the few days before payday.

Target executives told investors late last month that it's seeing lower credit card usage among its shoppers for the first time since 2001-2003.

At Penney's, Hicks said use of the company's store credit card was flat during the third quarter. The use of credit cards issued by other parties declined by a couple of percentage points. Hicks said he hasn't seen a decline in credit card use in five or six years.

Many Americans are using cash or debit cards because they are being forced to. Laura Nishikawa, an analyst at Innovest Strategic Value Advisors Inc., a New York investment research firm, said that based on data from Visa, Master Card and American Express, the number of credit cards that consumers have fell 5 percent in the second quarter from the first quarter. That was mainly because consumers received fewer credit card offers, she said.

For years, consumers tapped into inflated home equity and used credit cards to finance their spending. Now those spigots are being shut off, and job losses are mounting.

"Consumers are really struggling to find sources of cash to make purchases," Hoyt said. "The rapid job losses are taking a big bite out of labor incomes. Obviously, it's making it much more difficult to borrow."

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