A recent New York Times article details the rise of consumer debt, which has reached a new peak and now exceeds the record-breaking $12.68 trillion of consumer debt we had collectively back in 2008. In 2017, after a sharp decline followed by a rise as consumer sentiment improved, we reached a new peak of $12.73 trillion.[i]
A trillion is a big number. Numbers measured in trillions (that’s 1,000 billion, or 1,000,000 million – yes, that’s correct!) can seem abstract and difficult to relate to in our own individual situations.
While big numbers can be hard to grasp, dates are easy. 2008 is when the economy crashed, due in part to an unmanageable amount of debt.
Good debt and bad debt
Mortgage debt still makes up the majority of consumer debt, currently 68% of the total.[ii] But student loans are a category on the rise, currently more than doubling their percentage of total consumer debt when compared to 2008 figures.[iii] Coupled with a healthier economy, these new levels of consumer debt may not be a strong concern yet, but the impact of debt on individual households is often more palpable than the big-picture view of economists. Debt has a way of creeping up on families.
It’s common to hear references to “good debt”, usually when discussing real estate loans. In most cases, mortgage interest is tax deductible, helping to reduce the effective interest rate. However, if a household has too much debt, none of it feels like good debt. In fact, some people pass on home ownership altogether, investing their surplus income and living in more affordable rented apartments – instead of taking on the fluctuating cost of a house and its seemingly never-ending mortgage payments.
Credit card debt
Assuming that a mortgage and an auto loan are necessary evils for your household to work, and that student loans may pay dividends in the form of higher earning power, credit card debt deserves some closer scrutiny. The average American household owes over $15,000 in credit card debt,[iv] more than a quarter of the median household income. The average interest rate for credit cards varies depending on the type of card (rewards cards can be higher). But overall, American households are paying an average of 14.87% APR for the privilege of borrowing money to spend.[v]
That level of debt requires a sizeable payment each month. Guess what the monthly credit card interest for credit card debt of $15,000 at an interest rate of 15% would be? $187.50! (That number will go down as the balance decreases.) If your monthly payment is on the lower end, your debt won’t go down very quickly though. In fact, at $200 per month paid towards credit cards, the average household would be paying off that credit card debt for nearly 19 years, with a total interest cost of almost $30,000 – all from a $15,000 starting balance! (Hint: You can find financial calculators online to help you figure out how much it really costs to borrow money.)
You may not be trillions in debt (even though it might feel like it), but the first step to getting your debt under control is often to understand what its long-term effects might be on your family’s financial health. Formulating a strategy to tackle debt and sticking to it is the key to defeating your personal debt monsters.