The American middle class is falling deeper into debt to maintain a middle-class lifestyle.
Cars, college, houses and medical care have become steadily more costly, but incomes have been largely stagnant for two decades, despite a recent uptick. Filling the gap between earning and spending is an explosion of finance into nearly every corner of the consumer economy.
Consumer debt, not counting mortgages, has climbed to $4 trillion — higher than it has ever been even after adjusting for inflation. Mortgage debt slid after the financial crisis a decade ago but is rebounding.
Student debt totaled about $1.5 trillion last year, exceeding all other forms of consumer debt except mortgages.
Auto debt is up nearly 40% adjusting for inflation in the last decade to $1.3 trillion. And the average loan for new cars is up an inflation-adjusted 11% in a decade, to $32,187, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of data from credit-reporting firm Experian.
Unsecured personal loans are back in vogue, the result of competition between technology-savvy lenders and big banks for borrowers and loan volume.
The debt surge is partly by design, a byproduct of low borrowing costs the Federal Reserve engineered after the financial crisis to get the economy moving. It has reshaped both borrowers and lenders. Consumers increasingly need it, companies increasingly can’t sell their goods without it, and the economy, which counts on consumer spending for more than two-thirds of GDP, would struggle without a plentiful supply of credit.
In one sense, the growing consumer debt is a vote of confidence in the future. People borrowing money today expect to have the income tomorrow to pay it back. Consumer debt tends to rise when borrowers feel secure in their jobs.
But the debt pile is also an accumulated ledger of economic risk. It should be manageable so long as unemployment remains low. If job losses begin to rise, it would become unsustainable for some share of borrowers, raising chances of an increase in missed payments and lenders writing off unpaid balances. The Fed lowered interest rates on Wednesday because it sees rising risks of a slowdown that could boost unemployment.
Median household income in the U.S. was $61,372 at the end of 2017, according to the Census Bureau. When inflation is taken into account, that is just above the 1999 level. Over a longer stretch — the three decades through 2017 — incomes are up 14% in inflation-adjusted terms.
Average housing prices, however, swelled 290% over those three decades in inflation-adjusted terms, according to an analysis by Adam Levitin, a Georgetown Law professor who studies bankruptcy, financial regulation and consumer finance.
Average tuition at public four-year colleges went up 311%, adjusted for inflation, by his calculation. And average per capita personal health-care expenditures rose about 51% in real terms over a slightly shorter period, 1990 to 2017.
“The costs of staying in the middle class are going up,” Mr. Levitin said.
Jonathan Guzman and Mayra Finol earn about $130,000 a year, combined, in technology jobs. Though that is more than double the median, debt from their years at St. John’s University in New York has been hard to overcome.
The two 28-year-olds in West Hartford, Conn., have about $51,000 in student debt, plus $18,000 in auto loans and $50,000 across eight credit cards. Adding financial pressure are a baby daughter and a mortgage of around $270,000.
“I’m normally a worrier, but this is next-level stuff. I’ve never been more stressed,” Mr. Guzman said. “Never would I have thought with the amount we make I would have these problems.”
They no longer dine out several times a week. Other hits to their budget were hard to avoid, such as a wrecked car that forced them to borrow more.
Ms. Finol hasn’t used her T.J. Maxx credit card in more than a year. She makes the minimum monthly payment on its balance of approximately $7,500. Her monthly statement says if she continues at this pace, she will need about 23 years to pay it off.
Earlier this year, Mr. Guzman put his credit cards in a Ziploc bag with water and placed it in the freezer. In May, however, they went to two weddings, and needed a card to cover the cost of a gift and a rental car.
Mr. Guzman removed one of the credit cards from the freezer. “A lot of things came at once,” he said. Since then, he’s taken the rest of them out, too.
U.S. households that have credit-card debt owed an average of $8,390 in the first quarter 2019, up 9% from 2015 when adjusted for inflation, according to an analysis of Federal Reserve data by research firm WalletHub.com.
Taking on a mortgage to buy a house that could appreciate, or borrowing for a college degree that should boost earning power, can be wise decisions. Borrowing for everyday consumption or for assets such as cars that lose value makes it harder to save and invest in stocks and real estate that tend to create wealth. So the rise in consumer borrowing exacerbates the wealth gap.
The U.S. economy roughly doubled in size from 1989 through 2016, data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis show. Counted together, everyone got wealthier. But gains in assets owned were heavily skewed toward the highest earners, according to a Journal analysis of the Fed’s Survey of Consumer Finances.
The median net worth of households in the middle 20% of income rose 4% in inflation-adjusted terms to $81,900 between 1989 and 2016, the latest available data. For households in the top 20%, median net worth more than doubled to $811,860. And for the top 1%, the increase was 178% to $11,206,000.
Put differently, the value of assets for all U.S. households increased from 1989 through 2016 by an inflation-adjusted $58 trillion. A third of the gain — $19 trillion — went to the wealthiest 1%, according to a Journal analysis of Fed data.
“On the surface things look pretty good, but if you dig a little deeper you see different sub-populations are not performing as well,” said Cris deRitis, deputy chief economist at Moody’s Analytics.
Counting all kinds of debt, including mortgages, consumers aren’t nearly as debt-burdened as they once were. In the fourth quarter of 2007, the last year before the financial crisis stuck, households devoted 13.2% of their disposable income to debt service. In the first quarter of 2019, that number was 9.9%, largely due to low interest rates.