Are Americans Getting Smarter About Debt?

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According to the Federal Reserve's Survey of Consumer Finances, the way Americans use debt in their everyday lives has changed dramatically in the past few years. While the percentage of American households with debt has remained constant at 75%, the average total debt load has dropped by an impressive 13% since 2010.

Photo: Pixabay.

In fact, the median total for all Americans with debt is just over $122,000, including mortgage debt. We as Americans are managing our debt load better in every major category, except one -- education debt. Does this mean more people are taking a responsible approach to their finances, or is there another, less positive reason? Moreover, how worried should we be that student loan debt is still climbing, despite the clear trend toward lower debt in America?

Americans seem to be handling debt better
Not only do those Americans with debt owe less than they did a few years ago, but fewer people are also choosing to go into debt in the first place.

For example, the percentage of the population with mortgage or credit card debt fell significantly since 2010. The average total credit card debt of the 38% of the population that has any has dropped by an impressive 25% from $7,600 to $5,700.

And people are trying to live within their means more than in previous years. The median debt-to-income ratio of those households with debt is about 107%, down from 119% just three years before. In other words, a household with $100,000 in income can be expected to have about $107,000 in total debt. The payments on those debts represent under 16% of the households' income, down significantly from a peak of 18.7% in 2007.

Average Debt Carried by American Households | Create Infographics

It all seems to be producing a healthier American consumer, which is the reason less than 15% of debtors reported being late on any debt, down from a peak of almost 21% in 2007.

Student loans might not be as bad as they seem
Among "young families," which the Federal Reserve defines as those whose head of household is under 40, the rate of student loan debt has nearly doubled since 2001. Nearly 40% of these households have student loan debt, and the average among those that do has grown from about $17,000 to nearly $30,000.

Still, it may not be as bad as it seems. According to recent data, the positive effects of the rising student loan balances of Americans may be worth the cost. For instance, more people than ever before are getting advanced degrees, which cost more money but have significantly higher earnings potential.

And speaking of earnings potential, the gap in the lifetime earnings potential of college versus high school graduates makes the average student loan debt of about $30,000 seem like a drop in the bucket. According to a study by Georgetown University, the average new graduate with a bachelor's degree can expect to earn around $2.3 million in his or her lifetime. That's about $1 million more in earnings power over someone whose highest education level is high school.

Finally, when evaluating student loan debt, we should also take into account the programs in place to make repayment easier. Programs such as Pay-As-You-Earn, which limits student loan payments to just 10% of discretionary income and forgives any remaining balance after 20 years, simply didn't exist in 2001, when loan balances were much lower. Nor did the Public Service Loan Forgiveness plan, which encourages people to get into rewarding (but lower-paying) public-sector jobs.

Where do we go from here?
Although not all forms of debt are shrinking, our culture seems to be getting smarter about it. The most "unproductive" forms of debt, like credit cards and installment loans for purchases other than vehicles, were the types to see the largest year-over-year declines.

On the other hand, although education debt is on the rise, it is a more acceptable form of debt because the ends tend to justify the means a little more than, say, charging a shopping trip to a credit card.

This changing attitude toward debt is undoubtedly an effect of the financial crisis. However, it remains to be seen whether it's a temporary effect because of the lower availability of credit and other reasons. We can hope that this points to a lasting, healthy effect on the borrowing habits of Americans, similar to the effect of the Great Depression on that generation.

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