When Jerri Kiesler used to get upset, lonely, or bored, she'd pull out her dozen credit cards and zoom to the shopping malls in search of some little bauble to raise her spirits.
"I liked to go to specialty stores where they would call me by my name as I walked through the door," said the 50-year-old Dayton, Ohio, grandmother. "It gave me a feeling of self worth."Her mood changed as the bills arrived, followed by late notices, dunning letters and curt telephone calls from creditors. In two years, Mrs. Kiesler amassed $12,000 in credit-card debt, nearly half her annual income from an accounting job. There was no way she could pay all the bills.
She now jokes that at least her trip to bankruptcy court was made in style, thanks to the dresses and more than 200 pairs of shoes she'd charged from 1984 to 1986.
Mrs. Kiesler, who filed for personal bankruptcy three years ago and has remained "clean" since, is one of many American credit-card holders facing crippling financial problems from the enormous power of plastic.
The National Foundation for Consumer Credit says about 2 percent of the 130 million Americans who buy on credit are mired in credit-card debt, 4 percent face "some difficulties" and 10 percent experience "some discomfort."
Some troubled card-holders might take cash advances from one card to pay debt from another, the foundation says. Others dip into savings or borrow from friends and neighbors.
Credit problems grow more acute this time of year because the Christmas bills start rolling in. The American Bankers Association says holiday credit card use rose between 8 percent and 9 percent in 1988 over the previous year.
Debt counselors and therapists say they've noticed a steady increase in the number of people with credit problems seeking help, and requests for assistance have intensified this month.
Many claim that's partly because banks and credit card companies have lowered their standards by giving people far more credit than they can handle.
Luther Gatling, who runs the non-profit Budget & Credit Counseling Services Inc. in New York, said that while calls for help from debt-swamped clients might be more noticeable after the holidays, "this business doesn't really have an ebb or flow."
"It used to be that we got real busy the end of January. But because of the proliferation of credit you don't see it as acutely," he said. "Christmas does heap on credit (and) . . . this may push some people over the edge."
To help credit-card addicts, the Maryland-based National Foundation for Consumer Credit, an umbrella group for services like Gatling's, has nearly doubled its nationwide offices to around 400 in the last two years, said foundation president Donald L. Badders.
He said the number of individuals and families receiving budget counseling from them soared to 211,000 for the year ended Oct. 1 from 176,700 in 1987 and 118,000 five years ago.
"As baby boomers came of age in the past 10 years . . . the consuming public has grown," Badders said. "The complexity of consumer economics has grown."
So has the spendthrift yuppie mentality, to some degree.
"We've gotten to be a much more materialistic society. The cost of looking successful is going up and up," said Evan Steffans, a therapist at Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, Ohio, who co-founded a Shopper Stoppers counseling program with Mrs. Kiesler three years ago.
Badders said the percentage of debt-dogged consumers has remained fairly constant but the size of their debt is "a lot deeper than it was 10 years ago."
For example, the average person counseled at the foundation offices in 1980 had around $9,000 in accummulated debt, compared with $15,000 in 1987 and $17,000 last year. Badders said credit card debt is the fastest growing component of overall consumer debt.
"This tells us that the percentage of those getting into trouble have taken advantage of more credit opportunities," he said. "What I've seen happen is more aggressive marketing on the part of credit card companies."
That marketing, some credit counselors contend, can be irresponsible. The counselors complain that banks, in particular, don't adequately supervise different subsidiaries that peddle cards.
Mrs. Kiesler and many others who have faced even worse credit problems claim they sometimes have received card applications from the same banks harassing them to pay delinquent bills.
"It became a challenge to get credit cards. I still get applications," said Mrs. Kiesler, now unemployed.
Joseph L. Boutin, an executive vice president for Howard Bank in Burlington, Vt. and an ABA executive vice president, said those cases are rare. He said most banks thoroughly check credit backgrounds.
"I'm sure you're going to be able to find some banks that have lowered their standards for whatever reasons," Boutin said. "Most banks recognize when they make a loan they have to be paid back because we have deposit funds at risk."
Still, more people who are normally considered a greater credit risk - young adults, teens and modest-income earners - hold a significant portion of the approximately 850 million credit cards in circulation.
Robert Johnson, director of Purdue University's credit research center, said his most recent data show 21 percent of families with annual income of less than $10,000 were card holders in 1986, vs. 12 percent in 1983. He said 42 percent of those under age 25 had credit cards in 1986, vs. 20 percent in 1983. Many bankers and merchants agree that solicitations for new credit card customers have increased, but they attribute it to wider acceptance of credit cards and growing competition for customers.
This rivalry has pressured issuers to reduce annual fees or lower interest rates, at a time when interest rates have been rising.
Further squeezing profits are tax-law changes reducing the deductibility of credit-card interest. The ABA says about a third of all card users used to pay their entire bills at the end of the month, but in the last year that rose to 40 percent. Many issuers had derived much of their earnings from interest payments on balances left outstanding.