Americans’ Personal Debt Skyrockets

These days, we hear a lot of complaints from legislators and voters about how the national debt is untenably high, but the real crisis in this country may be the degree to which personal debt has soared over the years.

Back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the average American consumer had less than $2,000 in total personal debt, but that amount has increased steadily during the past 50 years.

This year, according to a recent report by The Atlantic, the average personal debt in this country sits at an astounding $10,168, not counting money consumers may owe on real estate in the form of mortgages and other loans.

In order to find this out, The Atlantic paired data from the Federal Reserve about total non-real estate consumer debt along with data from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics on personal debt by household over the years, and then adjusted the numbers for inflation.

So why is it that personal debt is so much higher? After all, as the data shows, this trend predates the Great Recession of 2007 and even the tinier recession of 2001.

One factor that The Atlantic highlights is the trend toward a “college-for-all culture,” meaning that during the past couple of decades, more Americans have come to view college as a necessity and have therefore been willing to take out larger student loans.

In fact, earlier this month, a report came out showing that consumers now owe a total of $850 billion in student loan debt, surpassing the amount owed in credit card debt.

However, credit card debt does seem to be the other big driving force behind the rise in personal debt during the past five decades.

As The Atlantic notes, credit card debt was largely unheard of in the 1950s and 1960s. Now, it’s all too common, as credit card debt rose to $5,719 in 2009.

Each of these factors have arguably been compounded by the fact that wages in this country have remained stagnant for years. According to a Census report last year, median household income in the U.S. did not increase at all between 1998 and 2008. Yet consumer spending continued to increase, and with it, so did the amount consumers borrowed.

Unfortunately the problem of personal debt may only get worse in the near future.

The economic downturn has caused wages to be mostly stagnant through last year and much of 2010. Meanwhile, after an initial period of restraint, consumers are beginning to spending more freely now as the economy begins to improve. As a result, a recent report showed that credit card debt is still rising and because many consumers have been unable to pay off the debts they have already accrued, their lenders have been forced to resort to charge-offs instead, which can ruin consumer credit scores in the future.

—For a comprehensive credit report, visit the BankingMyWay.com Credit Center.

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