Dr. Lieberman joins NPR’s MarketPlace Radio

Americans continue to spend — even as credit card and student loan payments loom

Another day, yet another indicator showing the undaunted American consumer will not stop spending money. According to fresh data from the Commerce Department, retail sales rose 0.7% in July from the month before. That’s the fourth straight month of rising spending.

And it’s not just inflation; retail sales are picking up at a faster clip than prices are climbing. That’s good news for the economy — mostly.

Come high inflation or high interest rates, American consumers are going to buy stuff as long as they have jobs.

“Consumers have this tendency to spend anything that they get. The savings rate is fairly low,” said Chuck Lieberman with Advisors Capital Management. “So if we’re generating income, we’re gonna go out and spend it.”

So with unemployment at a historically low 3.5%, we’ve been spending more — 8.4% more on online shopping year over year and 8.1% more at health and personal care stores, according to Tuesday’s census numbers.

Increasingly, those purchases are going on plastic, with aggregate credit card debt topping $1 trillion last quarter.

That number isn’t all that scary, said Olu Sonola at Fitch Ratings. After all, household balance sheets are still in pretty good shape.

But “pre-pandemic, the interest rate on credit cards were about 15%,” he said. “Now, that number is about 22%. It will not take much for people to be delinquent.”

More expensive credit card debt could be a drag on some consumers. The same goes for those student loan payments coming back in October.

Lower-income consumers will get hit hardest, noted Vanguard’s Fiona Greig. “It’s not like they have three, six, nine, 12 months’ worth of savings they can deploy against that new student loan payment,” she said.

Because high-income consumers will also feel the student loan pinch, Greig added, there might be less spending on things like travel and new cars.

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