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Can a Culture Built on Credit Tear Up Its Cards?

As wishful thinking goes, it may be hard to improve on the old childhood dream of the money tree. Just stroll out to the backyard, so the fantasy goes, pluck a few crisp bills off the nearest branch, and voila! You can spend to your heart's desire.

Today those money trees are more likely to sprout credit cards than greenbacks, but the fantasy remains the same. Maxed out on your credit limit? No problem. Just wait for the mail to bring today's supply of tempting credit-card offers, complete with ever-higher, "pre-approved" credit lines. Then go ahead and charge, charge, charge. What could be simpler?

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No wonder Americans have nearly doubled their nonmortgage debt in the past 10 years, to a record $1.1 trillion. And no wonder 61 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds already have debts, including college loans, according to a national poll by the Center for Policy Alternatives. At that rate, it's not surprising that these young respondents rank economic security as a top concern.

The latest sign of the deficit times shows up in an unconventional game show called "Debt," which debuted in June on the Lifetime Television cable channel. On the assumption that contestants have already treated themselves to shiny new cars or luxury vacations - typical quiz-show prizes - this program simply pays off winners' debts. So popular is the show that it is already being considered for a network slot.

Contestants, who tend to be under 40, must tell viewers how much they owe and how they racked up their debts. Despite their eagerness to wipe their debit slates clean, not all participants are ready to reform their spending habits. Life is to be lived to the fullest, some insist, even if that means living beyond their means. Deferred gratification? What's that?

It is a philosophy that would not have amused Bertrand Russell, who once said, "To be without some of the things you want is an indispensible part of happiness."

That doing-without approach may become more common if some economists have their way. Increasingly, financial advisors warn of danger ahead if Americans don't pare down their debt. From college students piling up education loans to baby boomers wondering how to finance their retirement, a new economic realism may be on the horizon.

One study by Merrill Lynch calculates that baby boomers should be saving three times as much as they currently are if they want to preserve their standard of living in retirement. Don Silver, author of "Baby Boom Retirement," warns that this group must change its thinking from being a generation of spenders to becoming a generation of savers. Saving, he says, "may become the mantra of the '90s." Other consultants advise Americans to "save until it hurts" and to scale back.

Scaling back - spending less, saving more - is hardly the modern American way. In a consumer society that promotes a "having it all" mentality, the temptation to spend and acquire is everywhere.

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Wishing upon a star can take many forms. For now, the dreamers and big spenders will continue to play out their fantasies of becoming rich the easy way, by standing in line at the lottery window or applying to be a contestant on "Debt."

Yet for the realists and the debt-weary who heed economists' belt-tightening messages, the supermarket-checkout question, "Paper or plastic?" could take on an entirely new meaning, this one economic rather than ecological: Paper or plastic - cash or credit card?

Could folding green stuff make a comeback as newly cautious consumers cut their plastic cards in half and adopt a pay-as-you-go approach? That may be unlikely in an increasingly cashless society, where dollar bills in a wallet seem almost as outdated as a piggy bank on a dresser. Still, one way or another, as one writer put it long ago, the piper must be paid.

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