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KERA's One Crisis Away project focuses on North Texans living on the financial edge.

One Crisis Away At The Holidays: Retail Spending Through The Decades

Lara Solt
KERA special contributor
Employees Leslie Luna, left, and Kenya Phelps straighten the TV display at Walmart in Dallas.

The pressure to shell out for holiday gifts, decorations, food, travel – it can push families to spend money they just don’t have. KERA is starting a new chapter in our ongoing look at life on the financial edge: One Crisis Away At The Holidays.

To kick things off we trace the modern-day history of retail spending and debt; from department store charge accounts, to wallets packed with plastic.

In 1945, Bing Crosby released 10 tracks of yuletide cheer and optimism, his famous album, Merry Christmas.

It came out the same year World War II ended. The post-war American economy was glowing with health. Through the 1950s and 60s wages were steadily rising, and people were ready to spend. Especially during the holidays.

Some cautious consumers put items on layaway. Others opened Christmas Club accounts at their local bank, putting aside a few dollars a week. A lot of shoppers took a different approach.

“We all hear how our parents and grandparents never borrowed any money, but they borrowed all the time,” says Louis Hyman, professor of business history at Cornell. “They just borrowed in different ways.”

Back in the 1950s, there wasn’t credit card debt as we know it today, just department store charge accounts people paid off each month. To see the evolution of spending and debt, click here.

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.