Digging Deeper Into The Issue of Personal Debt

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A new study digs deeper into the issues, problems, and root causes, of our personal debt.

How much do we owe, to whom, and why? Those are the questions a recent comprehensive financial survey by NerdWallet.com set out to answer, with some alarming results. NerdWallet, a financial website that relies heavily on data, analyzed the most recent (Q3 2015) statistics from the New York Federal Reserve, the U.S. Census Bureau, and others in the industry, as well as using a Harris Poll to survey 2,000 households about their debt and finances.

Here is a snap shot of what they found:

1. If you add up our total consumer debt for the entire U.S., we owe more than 101% of our total income. That means that not only do we owe in debt more than we save, but more than we make!

2. The average American now owes $5,726.85 in credit card debt.

3. But if we look at only those U.S. households that carry debt, the average jumps to $15,355 in credit card balances.

4. While that number is significant, it’s still lower than the high point of credit card balances, ironically during the apex of the real estate boom years from 2007-2009.

5. But total debt is now up, with U.S. households with debt carrying an average of $129,579 total.

6. To put that number it in perspective, that’s 167 percent of the average U.S. household income.

7. Here is a breakdown of that $129,579 indebted households owe on average:

Credit cards:
$15,355 per household with debt
$712 billion total

Mortgages:
$165,892 per household with debt
$8.12 trillion total

Auto Loans:
$26,530 per household with debt
$1.03 trillion total

Student loans:
$47,712 per household with debt
$1.21 trillion total

Total average debt per indebted household:
$11.91 trillion

8. So why has our total debt grown so significantly, even when our credit card debt has not? Analysts point to a very basic principle; over the last 12 years, the cost of living has risen faster and higher than our levels of income, with the difference ending up as debt.

9. Just look at the fact that median household has grown by only 26 percent since 2003, but household expenses have skyrocketed.

10. For example, food has gone up by 37 percent; medical costs have risen by 51 percent, and certainly the cost of higher education and just about every other expense (other than apparel and transportation costs, which are just a tiny fraction of the budget.)

11. In fact, the total cost of living has gone up by 29 percent in the same 12-year period since 2003. So we have a 26 percent increase in income compared to a 29 percent increase in household expenses, creating a 3 percent gap.

12. While three percent may not seem like a wide margin, consider that after adjusting for inflation, household debt has actually grown 15 percent faster than household income since 2003.

13. That disparity can really push millions of families off a financial cliff, especially considering that as a nation, we have a personal savings rate of less than 2 percent. For those who live in high priced cities, have high medical costs, and/or experience a job loss or other major expense, there may be no safety net…except for debt.

14. The chasm between income and what we have to spend to keep up with our debt load becomes exponentially greater when we consider interest.

15. The average U.S. household with debt now pays a total of $6,658 in interest every year, with at least $2,500 of that is interest on credit card debt.

16. When we look at that as a piece of our income pie, the average household is not paying 9 percent of their income ($75,591) just on interest payments!

17. The NerdWallet study goes further to break down the root causes of our debt. It seems that not only are we making less and relying on debt more, but American consumers don’t even realize how much debt they have!

18. In fact, consumers underestimated how much total credit card debt they carried by 155 percent when lined up against company and bank credit card balances – a difference of $415 billion!

19. That’s an alarming revelation, as people can’t begin to curb their use of debt, pay down their balances, and start saving and work towards financial responsibility if they don’t even realize the scope of their problem.

20. In NerdWallet’s survey, 23 people of people who have a credit card said that they have were surprised at least some time by the balance on their bill.

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