During and even after a crisis, people respond emotionally … and they spend the same way.
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Nearly a decade ago, Apple CEO Steve Jobs famously said, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
Here’s an addendum that’s crucial during this pandemic: A lot of times, people don’t know what they have until you show it to them.
I don’t build cutting-edge computers. I help people get out of debt. And because I deal with Americans who have spent too much on iPhones and a hundred other consumer products, I have a perspective that Steve Jobs never did.
Debt is clarifying.
Last year, I predicted the coming recession. I wasn’t optimistic about Americans’ odds to weather another downturn — and this was months before the pandemic.
Back then, the average American’s total debt, excluding mortgages, was $29,800. Even worse, 12 percent of Americans only pay the minimum on their credit cards, meaning they’re racking up even more debt every month.
Related: Is Lockdown the Perfect Opportunity To Talk About Family Finances?
You don’t need to be a CPA to know that spells trouble. Yet a February Gallup poll was headlined “Record-High Optimism on Personal Finances in the U.S.”
About three in four U.S. adults (74 percent) predict they will be better off financially a year from now, the highest in Gallup’s trend since 1977, the poll showed.
And a year ago, in March 2019, Experian reported that “As the U.S. economy entered its 11th consecutive year of expansion, consumer confidence was near record levels. At the same time, debt was also on the rise, surpassing pre-recession levels and reaching historic highs.”
Record debt with record optimism. I could rattle off poll after poll showing Americans were racking up debt but showing only minimal concerns about it.
And while this reckless debt is bad for consumers, it’s worse for business owners.
Here’s what consumer debt means to businesses.
Right now, consumers are behaving much like a smoker who promises to quit smoking after surviving a heart attack. A few months later, they’re lighting up again.
If you listen to your customers right now, you’ll make decisions based on their fear of spending money on even necessary purchases. Wait a few months, however, and they’ll revert to availing themselves of cheap credit with long-term payment plans. They’ll be buying from you again soon.
But I worry about that because, when your customers are broke, you may offer them credit. Eventually, however, the bill comes due.
Related: How to Prepare for Evolving Consumer Demand
I’m a CPA, not a sociologist, so I don’t know what exactly will change our culture and spending habits. Neither recessions, terrorism nor natural disasters have affected how Americans manage their money. This pandemic won’t have anything but a short-term impact on their spending habits.
As a business owner, you should alter your short-term tactics to account for the disastrous recession that we’re already in, even if it’s not yet official. Be aware, though, that this too shall pass — and Americans will once again pass the plastic.