Insights & Advice


Debt—the new Four Letter Word

Growing up in debt has become an American way of life. It begins at birth when our parent’s portion of the hospital bills is charged to the credit card. Student loans get us through school, mortgages finance our homes and then we borrow on the house through equity loans to fill it full of stuff. But we still don’t have enough so we end up taking out loans for more stuff, like cars, boats and trailers. Then we add two or three more credit cards so that we can buy electronics, clothes, vacations and now gas and food. It doesn’t seem to stop until we’re six feet under and even then most of the funeral expenses are charged to the plastic. But it looks like we are coming to the end of the road and here’s why.

Consumer debt has hit $2.52 trillion (up 22% since 2000) and is increasing at an annual rate of 3.5%. College debt has more than doubled since 1995 with the average student graduating with a college degree and $20,000 in educational bills. Household debt which includes mortgages and credit cards is now above 19%. Americans on average are carrying overt $8,565 per person in credit card debt alone. Worst still, since the home mortgage crisis exploded and home equity loans dried up more and more of us are turning to credit card borrowing at an increased rate just to make ends meet.

As most of us know, credit card debt tends to carry substantially higher costs than other kinds of credit and it is seductive in the sense that the consumer only has to pay the minimum amount each month in order to continue spending. Today it is estimated that over 176 million of us are digging our way diligently into a deeper and deeper hole.

Our mounting debt requires that we have to set aside more and more of our after-tax income to service those payments. Paying our bills now accounts for well over 15% of our take home pay each month. At the same time, our wages and income have remained relatively flat while inflation in the form of skyrocketing medical costs, food and gas have taken great hunks out of our paychecks as well. Given this unholy trio of rising debt, stagnant wages and rising inflation is it any wonder that the country’s savings rate is non-existent. As a result, the delinquency rate on debt repayment as well as bankruptcies is accelerating rapidly throughout the nation.

The worst part is that by the time most of us come to accept how bad our financial situation has become, it is almost too late to do anything about it. So here are some telltale signs, according to the Consumer Protection Agency, that you may be heading for trouble in the debt department:

  1. You have to use your credit card to pay for necessities like food, gas or dry cleaning.
  2. Your savings account is depleted with no prospect of adding to it.
  3. Your credit card balances are approaching four or five figures.
  4. You have only been able to pay the minimum balance on your credit cards over the last six months.
  5. You are juggling several credit cards to simply keep up with your debt payments
  6. You are over 50% of your credit card debt limit.
  7. You have been using your credit card for cash advances to live from month to month.
  8. You are paying an increasing amount of your other debt obligations with credit cards.

You should not be surprised to learn that a large number of Americans have experienced several if not all of the above signs in the last six months. In addition, many consumers are also having difficulty keeping up with other loans like mortgages and car payments. And not all debtors are from low-income backgrounds. Plenty of upper-class families have suddenly found themselves in a financial squeeze.

Unfortunately, Americans tend to view financial difficulties as a source of shame to be hidden or denied. Among many families, the issue is not even discussed until it is too late. Yet, there are numerous programs just a phone call away that can provide relief and guidance. Next week we will discuss some of those programs as well as several working solutions to this growing American problem.

Posted in Macroeconomics, The Retired Advisor