October 1, 2018
What exactly is consumer debt? It’s “We the People” debt, as opposed to government or business debt.
Consumer debt is our debt. And we, the people, have a lot of it – it’s record-breaking in fact. In May of 2018, U.S. consumer debt was projected to exceed $4 trillion by the end of 2018[i].
That’s a lot of zeros. So, in case you’re wondering, what makes up consumer debt?
Consumer debt consists of credit card debt and non-revolving loans – like automobile financing or a student loan. (Mortgages aren’t considered consumer debt – they’re classified under real estate investments.)
So, how did we get buried under all this debt?
There are a few reasons consumer debt is so high – some of them not entirely in our control. The rise of student loan debt: Most consumer debt consists of school loans. During the recession, many Americans returned to school to re-train or to pursue graduate degrees to increase their competitiveness in a tough job market.
Bankruptcy: Changing bankruptcy laws under the Credit Card Protection Act of 2005 made it harder for Americans to file for bankruptcy. This led to consumer credit card debt climbing to a record high of $1.028 trillion in 2008[ii].
Good auto loan rates: The number of auto loans has skyrocketed due to attractive interest rates. After the recession, the federal government lowered interest rates to spur spending and help lift the country out of the recession. Americans responded by financing more automobiles, which added to the consumer debt total.
Is all this consumer debt a bad thing?
Not all consumer debt is bad debt. And there are ways that it helps the economy – both personal and shared. A student loan for example – particularly a government-backed student loan – can offer a borrower a low-interest rate, deferred repayment, and of course, the benefit of gaining a higher education which may bring a higher salary. A college graduate earns 56 percent more than a high school graduate over their lifetime, according to the Economic Policy Institute. So, getting a student loan may make good economic sense.
Credit card debt that won’t go away
Credit card debt is a different story. According to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC), 61 percent of U.S. adults have had credit card debt in the past 12 months. Nearly two in five carry debt from month-to-month.
Still, the amount of credit card debt Americans carry has been on the decline, with the average carried per adult a little more than $3,000.
Credit card debt won’t hurt you with interest charges if you pay off the balance monthly. Some households prefer to conduct their spending this way to take advantage of cashback purchases or airline points. As always, make sure spending with credit works within your budget.
If you’re carrying a balance from month to month on your credit cards, however, there is going to be a negative impact in the form of interest payments. Avoid doing this whenever possible.
Stay on the good side of consumer debt
Consumer debt is a mixed bag. Staying on the good side of consumer debt may pay off for you in the long run if you’re conscientious about borrowing money, plan your budget carefully, and always seek to live within your means.