Stopping debt needs a catchy slogan

May 13, 2008


A coalition of consumer advocates, public policy groups and academics wants to attack our country's dependence on debt by creating a national campaign much like the one used to curb smoking.

It's a good idea given the current economic crisis. Maybe people might benefit from a snappy way to put a stop to their accumulation of debt. How about "Thrifty is Nifty"?

OK, probably a little corny. But the idea of a nationwide advertising campaign has a lot of merit. It certainly has worked for the debt-pushers.

The organizations leading this effort include the Institute for American Values, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, the New America Foundation, Public Agenda, Demos, the Consumer Federation of America, and the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions.

"We are trying to change attitudes," said David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values. "We would like to put in a good word for thrift as a value and a practice."

The coalition held a conference Monday and today in Washington and has issued a report, "For a New Thrift: Confronting the Debt Culture."

There's no major revelation in the 68-page report. It merely lists the many ways debt has taken down so many people.

Foreclosures, which soared to over a million in 2007, are predicted to affect about 2.5 million households this year. Consumer bankruptcy filings are also up significantly.

Of course, there is the mortgage meltdown. And now auto-loan and credit-card delinquencies are also rising.

But even before the subprime debacle, many people were struggling with a growing debt burden. The Federal Reserve recently reported that consumer credit increased by $15.3 billion in March to $2.56 trillion.

"Millions of families today feel the American dream slipping away," the report's authors write. "They are losing hope of escaping from the cycle of over-indebtedness, holding a good-paying job, or moving up the income ladder."

To be sure, the ceaseless temptation to overspend is part of the story, the coalition leaders say. But just blaming or railing against consumers won't fix our debt problem. We've got to look at the financial institutions, or anti-thrifts, as the coalition calls them.

It's these anti-thrifts - payday lenders, auto-title lenders, credit-card issuers, subprime mortgage lenders, private student loan companies, and state-owned and sanctioned lottery operations - that have created a climate where being thrifty isn't the norm anymore.

Coalition leaders argue it's time to use the same tactics as the financial institutions and state lotteries to capture people's attention.

To start, how about playing off Capital One's ubiquitous ad slogan, "What's in Your Wallet?"

The thrift initiative could advertise instead: "What's in My Wallet? Cash!"


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