We say we don’t want debt—but we act a different way. Americans’ number-one financial goal for 2018 seems a laudable one—reducing the amount of debt they owe, with more than half of the people in a recent representative survey, 53%, describing that as their top priority.
The same survey by Northwestern Mutual, however, shows that Americans are in fact digging themselves further into debt.
Respondents said they currently owe $38,000, on average, not counting mortgage debt—that’s an increase of $1,000 over what they owed last year.
Overall, the toll of that debt is pressing for those trying to make ends meet. Fully 36% of monthly income is spent paying off debt from credit cards, education loans and other sources, excluding mortgage debt. The results of the study can heighten your awareness of the dangers of racking up debt and remind you of the need to practice discipline to head off those dangers.
One in five of the surveyed Americans, or 20% of them, currently allocate between 50% and a stunning 100% of their income to servicing the debt of different kinds that they have accumulated, which might mean dipping into savings or pushing more and more of the debt onto ever-rising credit card bills. Fully 13% expect to be in debt for the rest of their lives.
However, Americans display a strikingly blasé attitude to their rising indebtedness. Well over half of the total surveyed, 56%, said that debt had little or no impact on their ability to achieve financial security.
“Despite recognizing that debt means dangerous waters, Americans are jumping in with both feet and struggling to stay afloat,” Northwestern said. “People’s purse strings are clearly caught in a tug of war between enjoying the present and saving for the future.”
There’s more bad news. Credit cards, which often charge particularly high interest rates, rose to become tied with mortgages as the leading source of debt for those surveyed.
Those listing credit cards as their leading source of debt spiked to 25% in 2018 from 19% in 2017. In contrast, those listing mortgages as their leading source of debt actually declined sharply, to 25% from 29%.
Arguably, mortgages are not as detrimental as some other forms of debt because they are used to pay off an asset that continues to be useful and valuable to you for decades. That’s typically not the case with credit card debt, which often is used to finance everything from groceries to vacations to Saturday night partying.
Those surveyed who said they carried no debt at all declined to 23% from 27%.
Other sources of debt—such as car loans, education loans, and home-equity loans or lines of credit, did not vary greatly from 2017, according to the research, with the percentage of people citing such categories as their leading source of debt varying by one percentage point over the previous year.
Among other sobering figures, the survey points out that while 33% of Americans owe between $5,001 and $25,000, only 17% of us—about half as many—have saved a similar amount outside of our retirement accounts. Our safety net is thin.