This probably comes as a shock to no one, but Americans have a debt problem. The 2015 American Household Credit Card Debt Study released from NerdWallet earlier this year showed that the average U.S. household was carrying $15,355 in credit card debt and $129,579 in total debt. Cumulative student loan debt also totals in excess of $1.2 trillion dollars. For the average American that's a burdensome amount to pay off over one's lifetime.
Till debt do us part
However, a newly released survey from CreditCards.com paints an even more dreadful sight than many may not have imagined. More than one-in-five (21%) people polled by CreditCards.com predicted that they would never be out of debt, up from 18% last year. This is particularly concerning because the U.S. unemployment rate is at the lowest level in seven years, implying that the economy is healthy and the consumer is, to some extent, thriving.
On the other hand, if there is a minor ray of sunshine it's that 22% of respondents this year noted that they were debt-free, which is up eight percentage points from last year. Overall, the average American anticipates being debt-free by age 54.
CreditCards.com's survey also found that age and income can play an interesting role on debt levels and perception. Not surprisingly, millennials have the most optimistic view of getting out of debt, likely because they have decades to do so before they retire.
What was shocking was that low-income earners (people earning $30,000 or less per year) were the most likely to say they're free of debt, whereas upper-income earners netting at least $75,000 in income per year were the most likely to be in debt. Of course, the inverse was true when it came to paying off debt: upper-income earners were more confident of getting out of debt, whereas low-income earners are more likely to feel trapped by their debt. It's possible that higher wage earners' easier access to banking services explains this divergence.
Lastly, CreditCards.com notes that the holidays can put added pressure on consumers' wallets. The National Retail Federation expects the average shopper to spend $805 on holiday items in 2015, up $70 from a decade ago. Consumers may attempt to stick to a strict spending limit, but the allure of sales can be a dangling carrot that some can't ignore.
The 1-2-3 of staying out of debt
it's important to keep in mind that there is no perfect formula for getting out of debt once you're in debt, because everyone's financial situation is different. However, following some basic suggestions could make a substantial impact on how quickly you reduce or pay off your debt.
1. Budget! Budget! Budget!
First of all, consumers should be working with a monthly budget. The idea of living your life off a budget isn't exactly exciting, I'll give you that. However, if you don't understand your cash flow there's a very good chance you'll either never achieve your goal of getting out of debt, never hit your retirement number, or worst of all, fail to achieve both goals. Formulating a budget will give you an intricate understanding of your cash flow and allow you to optimally divert your income to paying off debt and saving for retirement.
Also, your budget doesn't have to be etched in stone. Although it's designed to keep your spending and saving on track, there's no reason why a budget can't be adjusted as your income changes.
2. Be an informed student
Secondly, for young readers and/or parents with children, consider your potential return on investment if attending college. The rate of inflation for college costs is vastly outpacing wage growth. Between 1985 and 2012 the Consumer Price Index rose by 115%. College tuition and fee costs? They jumped by close to 500%!
The above data isn't meant to suggest you shouldn't attend college. In fact, a survey from Pew Research Center in February 2014 suggests that millennials ages 25 to 32 with a minimum four-year degree were earning a median of $17,500 more per year than a comparably aged millennial with only a high school diploma. If anything, college is becoming even more essential for socioeconomic advancement.
The solution? Consider going, or sending your children to, a lesser-expensive state college. Annual tuition costs don't always correlate to a better return on investment. Or in layman's terms, a $50,000 per year college tuition cost doesn't guarantee you a job that will pay off your student loans. My suggestion would be to peruse the College ROI rankings from PayScale. My guess is you'll see quite a few surprises in its rankings.
As a side note, The College Board also notes that scholarships lowered the annual tuition price paid by students in 2012-2013 by a whopping 65%, so make sure you're doing everything possible to secure that free money.
3. Be responsible and negotiate where you can
Lastly, consumers need to exercise good judgment when it comes to using credit and opening credit accounts. For example, opening a credit account to make an essential large purchase probably makes sense, especially if you don't have the funds to complete the purchase. Opening a credit card to save $1 on a $10 purchase? Probably not such a smart or necessary move.
Consumers should also consider the advantages of opening essential credit accounts that offer 0% APR for extended periods of time. Having the opportunity to pay down debt with no interest accruing can be a major advantage, especially if you're working with a budget that's optimized your ability to pay down what you owe.
Also consider that your interest rate, in certain situations, may be negotiable. The worst thing a credit card company can tell you when requesting a rate decrease is "no," so it never hurts to ask. This can be an especially important tool if you're having trouble meeting your payments. Credit card companies would really prefer not to send your account to a collections agency, because it'll have to split a portion of the collected money with the collection agency. Instead, it would much rather work out a payment plan with its distressed cardholders.
Always remember that you have options when it comes to keeping your debt under control and paying off your debt.
Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.
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