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Americans' Debt Declining, but Still Concerning: Northwestern Mutual

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U.S. consumer debt levels have improved a bit from 2018, but the numbers remain deeply concerning, according to Northwestern Mutual.

U.S. adults 18 and older reported having an average of $29,800 in personal debt aside from mortgages, according to the latest findings from the firm’s 2019 Planning & Progress Study, based on an online survey conducted for it by Harris Feb. 20-March 5. The study also found that 15% of Americans believed they would be in debt until the day they died.

Although those numbers are “staggering,” they represent an improvement over 2018, when U.S. adults reported an average of $38,000 in personal debt.

That was “pretty significant improvement” from last year, Chantel Bonneau, a wealth management advisor at Northwestern Mutual, told ThinkAdvisor. Although the reasons for the improvement weren’t clear from the study, she guessed that a possible cause was the improved job market and positive, “full-employment economy.” After all, in prior studies like this, when respondents were asked what they would do with money from a “windfall” such as a bonus, many people said they would use it for savings or to pay off debt, she noted, adding: “I think they actually did that” now.

The U.S. debt problem, however, “continues to run deep with widespread implications,” Northwestern Mutual said, noting the 2019 study also found that 34% of Americans’ monthly incomes were being used to pay off their debt.

Additional findings of the new report included: Forty-five percent of Americans said debt made them feel anxiety on at least a monthly basis; 35% reported feeling guilt at least monthly due to their debt loads; 20% reported debt made them feel physically ill at least once each month and the same percentage weren’t even sure how much debt they had; and 34% were unsure how much of their monthly incomes were being used to pay off their debt.

Generation X respondents reported the highest levels of personal debt, with $36,000 on average, followed by baby boomers at $28,600, millennials at $27,900 and Gen Z at $14,700.

The top sources of total debt for most Americans was a tie between mortgages and credit cards, with 22% of survey respondents citing each as their main source of debt, according to the study. Trailing far behind were the next two highest debt sources, car loans (9%) and personal education loans (8%). Millennials cited credit card bills as their top source of debt (25%), while Gen Z listed personal education loans as theirs (20%). Both Gen Xers (30%) and baby boomers (28%) cited mortgages as their leading source of debt, followed by credit card bills (at 24% for Gen Xers and 18% for boomers).

Other data on credit card debt revealed by the study: 31% of respondents said they were paying interest rates on their credit cards higher than 15%, while 12% disclosed they “always” paid just the minimum required payment, merely covering the interest without paying down any principal, Northwestern Mutual said. In addition, 19% didn’t even know what their interest rate was, with millennials the most likely to report not knowing, at 22%, and 18% reported owning four or more credit cards, with boomers being more likely than other generations to have four or more cards (23%). Citing recent data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Northwestern Mutual noted that credit card debt reached $868 billion in the U.S., where delinquencies are rising.

“The road to financial security is long, even in the best of circumstances,” according to Emily Holbrook, senior director of planning at Northwestern Mutual. “By carrying high levels of personal debt that road gets even longer, often requiring all kinds of detours and other twists and turns,” she said in a statement, adding: “The fact that there’s been some year-over-year improvement in debt levels is good, but the numbers still remain worryingly high.”

Data from the study, combined with national numbers, indicates Americans “continue to struggle with finding the right balance between spending now versus saving for later,” she went on to say. “But it’s important to understand the impact that spiraling debt can have on a financial plan,” she said.

All hope isn’t lost, however, and there are certain steps that Americans in debt can take to get control of their situations, she said, explaining: “It might start with loan consolidation and a budget, then move to a longer-term plan that includes guardrails to help people stay on track. The most important part is to take action. It’s often those first few steps that can be the hardest and most important.”

The survey included 2,003 Americans 18 or older in the general population and an oversample of 281 U.S. adults 18-22 who participated in an online survey, Northwestern Mutual said. The results were weighted to Census targets for education, age/gender, race/ethnicity, region and household income, the firm said, adding “propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online.”

— Check out Many Gen Xers Are Too Bogged Down With Debt to Save Enough for Retirement on ThinkAdvisor.


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