Consumer Confidential: Store prices, student loans, bank fees


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Here’s your walk-on-by Wednesday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

--You’re paying a little more food and clothes and stuff -- and that’s probably not such a bad thing. The consumer price index rose 0.3% in September, less than the 0.4% increase in August, according to the Labor Department. Excluding food and energy, so-called core prices increased 0.1%, the smallest increase since March. Food prices rose 0.4% in September, pushed up by big increases in dairy, cereals and fruits and vegetables. Gas prices rose 2.9%. Costs of medical care, airline fares and tobacco also increased. But economists say a little bit of inflation is a good thing because it shows the economy is relatively stable. A deflationary spiral is something to be feared because it can lead to more jobs being lost and more pistol whippings for stocks.

--Speaking of inflation, let’s talk about student loans. The amount of student loans taken out last year crossed the $100-billion mark for the first time, and total loans outstanding will exceed $1 trillion for the first time this year. Americans now owe more on student loans than on credit cards, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Students are borrowing twice what they did a decade ago after adjusting for inflation. Total outstanding debt has doubled in the last five years -- a sharp contrast to consumers reducing what’s owed on home loans and credit cards. Full-time undergraduate students borrowed an average $4,963 in 2010, up 63% from a decade earlier after adjusting for inflation. And down the road, of course, those bills will have to be paid.


--Looks like many consumers won’t take higher bank fees on the chin. About 30% of U.S. consumers say they’d leave their banks over fees for using their debit cards, according to a survey by the Research Intelligence Group. About 43% say they’d switch to paying with cash or credit cards if their bank implemented charges, while 13% say they’d pay the fee if it was ‘reasonable.’ The survey comes as the largest banks, including Bank of America, are testing or planning to start charging fees of as much as $5 a month for consumers who have a debit card or use one for purchases.

-- David Lazarus