Letters to the Editor

Citizens must wrangle finances

Editor's note: The following editorial appeared Tuesday in the Dallas Morning News.

While it's popular to criticize Washington for spending insanely and refusing to live within a budget, the reality is that too many Americans aren't walking the tough talk in our own households.

According to a new report, 25.5 percent of all consumers -- nearly 43.4 million people -- have credit scores of 599 or below, meaning they are bad lending risks and unlikely to get credit cards, car loans or mortgages. That number is up 2.4 million in the last two years as the economy has shed jobs and spawned foreclosures.

No wonder the country's financial recovery seems stuck in neutral. Consumers who can't borrow money can't buy houses and cars, make substantial home improvements, purchase big durable goods or, in some instances, even find affordable auto insurance. Big-dollar purchases like these fuel economic growth and give businesses reasons to hire workers and ramp up production. Record-low mortgage rates or interest-free car loans are enticing but useless if too few Americans have the credit scores to qualify.

These numbers provide a sobering backdrop to the nation's economic travails. If they continue, more Americans will not qualify for -- or be able to afford -- interest payments on goods or services they were able to buy a few years ago. And that will have a negative domino effect on the economy and thus on those with excellent or moderate scores.

Right now, those with moderate credit scores (650 to 699) make up nearly 12 percent of consumers, a slight decrease from 2008. Whether the credit-worthiness of this group holds steady or improves in the next few months will be yet another signal of the economy's outlook and of the willingness of consumers to make tough personal choices about debt and spending.

Like it or not, this is the flip side of years of economic self-delusion. Consumer spending based on credit fueled the U.S. economic boom beyond what sensible financial planning would have dictated. Americans loaded up on credit cards that were approved without serious credit checks, and they bought houses and cars that they couldn't afford because neither lenders nor consumers could utter the word "no." Under pressure to rebuild their battered balance sheets, banks now are more discriminating in their loan decisions. In turn, more Americans are confronting their financial mortality.

Credit scores aren't going to get better until two things happen -- the economy improves and Americans change the spending habits that helped create now-toppling sand castles of false prosperity. Yes, Washington must get the nation's financial house in order, but the rest of us also must walk the talk.