If the government seems addicted to adding to the national balance sheet, then Americans have a similar obsession for personal debt. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Center for Microeconomic Data recently found that household debt has risen for 16 straight quarters. What does that look like today?
Our visualization paints a detailed picture of what’s really going on underneath the surface of alarming headlines about debt. There are different categories of personal debt, like mortgages, student loans, and home equity loans. Some of these are healthy for economic growth. Having a mortgage is good if it lets you build equity. Student loans represent an investment in yourself and usually bring about higher future earning potential. Car loans are likewise necessary because most people can’t afford to buy a vehicle outright.
Here’s the problem. Even if carrying certain kinds of personal debt at reasonable levels is a good financial decision, lots of Americans are in way over their heads. Demand is soaring for subprime mortgages, which caused the housing crash 10 years ago. More than 44 million people carry a student loan and 10.7% default on their repayments every year. GM’s decision to cut 14,000 jobs is rooted in the fact that Americans prefer large SUVs and trucks to more efficient and affordable sedans. The average new vehicle now costs an astonishing $36,000, and delinquency rates are ever increasing.
And that’s just for the so-called “good” forms of personal debt. Credit card and home equity debt are both universally considered unhealthy because they fuel unsustainable levels of consumption in exchange for punitive interest rates. Good debt, like mortgages, usually don’t cost very much. Home loans are about 4.5% to 5.0% right now if you have good credit. But credit card rates start at 13.99% at the low end. And what about that $0.4T “other” bubble sitting at the right of the visual? That includes things like payday and car title loans. Only the companies actually offering these products think they’re good for the economy.
Debt isn’t an essential part of life. There are really only two ways to pay it off. You either have to increase your income, or cut things from your budget. Either way, paying off debt requires the discipline to devote the extra cash toward a long-term goal. And if past is prologue, Americans won’t be able to look to their leaders for inspiration.
Data: Table 1.1