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Image source: Getty Images.

To say that Americans are attached to credit would be an understatement. We are a nation that literally runs on credit, straight up to our federal government, which has borrowed in excess of $19 trillion.

On a consumer level, according to ValuePenguin as of May 2016, outstanding consumer debt in the U.S. stands at $3.4 trillion, including $929 billion in revolving debt. The average balance-carrying household is lugging around more than $16,000 in debt, which is up by more than 10% since 2012. Considering that approximately 70% of U.S. GDP is based on consumption, it's not one bit surprising that the "buy first, ask questions later" mentality prevails.

Not all debt is necessarily bad. For example, going into debt to get a college education could potentially provide a substantial return on your investment. However, too much debt, even "good debt," can be crippling to your finances. The more money you have to set aside to cover interest and principle, presumably the less money you'll have to invest in yourself via retirement savings.

This type of debt can be financially crippling

What debts tend to be the most pervasive? That was the question posed by GoBankingRates' latest survey of nearly 2,800 adults across the United States. GoBankingRates' survey established which one of five sources of debt was the largest for the adults surveyed and then proceeded to ask how much debt each respondent had across the following five categories of focus:

  • Mortgage debt
  • Credit card debt
  • Student loan debt
  • Medical debt
  • Auto loan debt

Here's what the average debt totals looked worked out to according to GoBankingRates' survey.

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Image source: GoBankingRates

Based on the findings of the study, a surprising 51% of respondents claimed not to have any debt. However, Bruce McClary of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling opined that this low figure could be a result of consumers forgetting about certain types of debts they owe. For instance, student loans are deferred debts that could be paid by a parent, but it's still ultimately a debt that belongs to the student. Likewise, buying a good that has a deferred payment period of, say, six or 12 months should count, but it may be slipping the minds of respondents.

Far and away the biggest median debt American households are carrying is mortgage loan debt. The average household has $59,500 in mortgage debt, with 35- to 44-year-olds the most likely to be carrying mortgage debt. Higher-income adults are also more likely to have mortgage debt, as well as a higher level of mortgage debt. In total, one in five respondents claimed a home loan as their biggest source of debt in the survey.

If there is a silver lining here, it's that seniors aged 65 are the least likely to have mortgage debt. Heading into retirement with mortgage debt can be a bit scary, since you're more likely to have a fixed income or lower income than when you were earning a wage.

How to cope with a big mortgage

Now here's the good news: We just about couldn't be in a more homeowner-friendly environment for you to do something about your high levels of mortgage debt. The Federal Reserve's dovish monetary policy has kept the federal funds rate near historic lows for nearly eight years, which means if you're looking to refinance your home to a lower interest rate, you may be able to do so and save plenty of money, even inclusive of refinance fees.

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Image source: Flickr user Mark Moz.

But there's more than you can do than simply pull the trigger on refinancing. For example, make sure you shop around for the best refinancing rate. Just because your current bank or credit union is offering you a lower rate than what you're paying doesn't mean another financial institution isn't willing to better that offer. If you have excellent credit, it's not uncommon for banks and credit unions to fight for your business, putting the bargaining power entirely in your court.

Think about the nature of your loan as well if you do plan to refinance. Refinancing an existing loan to a lower rate could save you money, but you may be able save thousands, or tens of thousands, of dollars by shortening the length of your loan. Considering a 15-year loan instead of a 30-year mortgage could result in a substantially lower interest, saving you a lot of money over the life of the loan.

Budget Figures With Calculator And Pen Getty

Image source: Getty Images.

Maintaining a detailed monthly budget is another step to ensuring you can meet your monthly debt obligations. According to Gallup in 2013, just a third of American households keeps a detailed monthly budget, which makes understanding your cash flow almost impossible. Most budgeting can be done entirely online these days in as little as 30 minutes a month. So long as you remain disciplined to your budget and create specific, measurable, and achievable goals, it'll be possible to adjust your saving and spending habits on an as-needed basis.

It's also worth considering how big of a home you really need. If you're buried knee-deep in mortgage debt and struggling to save money, but you find that you have empty rooms in your house that are going to waste, it could be time to consider renting out a few rooms to generate additional monthly income, or downsizing to something more affordable.

Taking proactive steps to manage your mortgage debt wisely now should help you avoid having your mortgage loan adversely affect your ability to save for the future.

Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.

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