Two out of three consumers believe they have no alternative but to get into debt, the latest Old Mutual Savings and Investment Monitor has found.
"This equals the highest recorded measure for this sentiment during the Savings and Investment Monitor's history... ," the company said on Monday.
The sentiment was accompanied by a significant increase in indebtedness, researchers found.
Personal loans from financial services providers rose from 11 percent in November 2011, to 16 percent in July 2012.
In November 2011, results indicated that South Africans were starting to get to grips with their finances and were trying to rein in their debt.
The context of the latest results was recessionary pressures locally and globally, and political uncertainty and conflict in some regions.
In South Africa, there had been sharp increases in petrol, energy and food costs -- all necessary items -- and households were feeling the pinch.
Gautengers had some respite when e-tolls were put on hold, but worries about the future affect "loom large".
According to the report, there had been a shift away from "panic" and people were trying to pay off debt.
As a result, savings as a percentage of household income had increased, most evident among lower-income earners, even though it was off a low base.
However, the proportion of metro households saving more (31 percent) was still outweighed by those that said they were saving less (37 percent).
The drop off in credit card penetration seen in November 2011 had been maintained, but people were still just paying off the minimum balance required.
The drop off in other (non-card) short-to-medium term credit, seen in November 2011, reversed.
Higher-income consumers had increased their take-up of car finance and overdraft facilities.
Credit extension in the form of personal loans and hire purchase (HP) had grown in the middle- and lower-income brackets.
Researchers mentioned the "vulnerable" position of single mothers, in particular.
They appeared to be lavishing money on their homes and children, often at the expense of long-term savings for themselves, and were neglecting providing for their own retirement.
Of the mothers polled, 56 percent were single mothers and half got no money from their children's fathers.
Fifty three percent of them had no retirement plan, believing it was more important to save for their children's education.
They assumed that by funding education, their children would look after them later, or they felt that the state should play a role.