Beware debt traps: Consumers warned against panic buying, new loans as virus strikes

As some South Africans stock up on everything from baked beans and toilet paper to Dettol as coronavirus cases rise, consumer advice groups have issued a warning: watch out for debt.

"Buying under panic and anxiety has the potential for consumers to buy things they do not need and cannot afford," says the National Credit Regulator, a body responsible for the regulation of the South African credit industry.

"For some consumers to acquire these items, they resort to using credit and this could be detrimental to their overall financial health."

You buy it, you pay for it

Nomsa Motshegare, the NCR's chief executive officer, says shoppers must always remember that whatever they buy on credit has to be repaid.

She urged consumers to proactively approach contact their credit providers or approach debt counsellor for help.

Her warnings come as analysts predict that SA's economy will likely shrink in the the first and second quarters of 2020. Writing in Fin24 on Sunday, Dawie Roodt, chief economist at the Efficient Group, said initial rough calculations point to to -2% contraction in GDP in the first quarter of 2020 and a "huge contraction of around 6%, or more" in the second.

Roodt warned, however, that these were "rough estimates and will be affected by several variables".

He made his calculations before President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a 21-day lockdown on Monday evening in a bid to decrease the spread of the coronavirus.  

A natural urge - but beware

Old Mutual's Head of Financial Education, John Manyike, says that while the urge to stock up on groceries in bulk is "natural given the uncertainty and anxiety the pandemic has caused,” consumers should be cautious.

"Retailers are unlikely to run out stock because of the virus, and much of what you pile into your trolley, such as perishable products could go to waste especially with load shedding still lingering and your financial well-being could be severely compromised if you haven’t planned or budgeted properly."

President Ramaphosa, on Monday, said that government has had discussions with manufacturers and distributors of basic necessities, who have indicated "there will be a continuous supply of these goods. There is therefore no need for stockpiling of any items".

This message that shops would not run out of products was repeated by major retailers last week. "If customers help us by shopping normally, we will be able to minimise the number of times we have to limit how many of some specific products each customer can buy," said Pick n Pay CEO Richard Brasher.

Manyike also warned against the taking out of loans to buy groceries in bulk.

"The nature of this pandemic is terrifying; however you shouldn’t be making financially crippling decisions that may lead to unnecessary debt," he said.

"The best approach is to monitor the situation closely daily without making long-term decisions," he said.

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