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Poll: More Americans expect to be in debt forever

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Almost one in five Americans in debt expects to die while still in debt, and more than a third of American consumers already are shouldering new loans during this holiday season, according to a new survey by CreditCards.com.

The national survey, commissioned by CreditCards.com and conducted the first week of December as the frenzy of holiday shopping approached critical mass, found that for many Americans, debt will be a lifelong, inescapable companion.

A new survey, conducted by CreditCards.com asks Americans when they expect to get out of debt; 18 percent of those in debt say
  • In fact, 18 percent of those already in debt expect to take their loans to the grave. That's double the 9 percent who expressed that pessimistic view the last time CreditCards.com asked the question in May 2013. This time around, another 11 percent don't expect to get out of debt until they're at least in their 70s.
  • The average age people expect to achieve freedom from debt is 53, the same age as in 2013.
  • Among all Americans -- including both those who already owe money and those who currently are debt free -- 13 percent say they will "never" pay off all their loans and get in the clear. Now add in another 8 percent who don't see themselves paying off their loans until they are at least 71 years old, and you begin to sketch a future in which more than one of every five Americans expects to struggle throughout his or her adult life to dig out of debt.

"These numbers are disturbing," said Christopher Viale, president of Cambridge Credit Counseling of Massachusetts, a nonprofit organization that helps people become free of debt. "I am most concerned about the 13 percent who expect that they'll never be debt-free, given all the negative consequences that come with such a bleak outlook."

Holiday debt
Meanwhile, credit card holders and other Americans are busily burrowing deeper debt holes right now:

  • Thirty-eight percent of all consumers say they already have made holiday purchases on credit, though many express the belief that these debts won't last long.
  • Of those who already have entered into holiday-related debt, 55 percent plan to eliminate the debt within a month and 74 percent expect to pay it off within three months.
  • Still, for some, the payback date will be closer to the next holiday season than this one. About 6 percent of Americans say they will need at least four months to pay off this year's holiday purchases; 2 percent say six months to a year; and 2 percent say more than a year.

"Like any other short-term financial goal, holiday debt needs to be resolved relatively quickly," Viale said. "Otherwise, it starts getting in the way of your other goals. No one should take on so much holiday debt that it will take them more than three months to comfortably pay off their balances."

The CreditCards.com survey of 1,001 Americans, performed Dec. 4-7 by landline telephone and cellphone, did find some people who disdain debt: About 14 percent of all respondents said they are completely debt free, at least for now, and 60 percent had not yet signed off on any new debts for this season's holiday purchases.

Respondents were asked about their expectations regarding the debt they already have -- credit card bills, car loans, student loans, mortgages, etc. -- and, separately, about the debt they already had incurred for the holidays.

Other findings
The survey also found:

  • Women are half again as likely as men to believe they will not be able to pay off their loans during their lifetimes. Fifteen percent of all female respondents chose "never" in comparison to 10 percent of men.
  • Only 6 percent of already-indebted millennials say they will never get out of debt, compared with 31 percent of debtors age 65 and older and 22 percent between the ages of 50 and 64. Experts admire the optimism of the young, but fear that it is not realistic.
  • White, non-Hispanic consumers are considerably more likely to see themselves dying in debt (15 percent) than black Americans (9 percent) or Hispanic Americans (8 percent). "This is an intriguing set of data," Viale said. "At first glance, I would guess that the numbers reflect the fact that more of the white non-Hispanic consumers are carrying student loan debt."
  • Pessimistic responses regarding eventual freedom from debt were remarkably consistent across all income levels: Those earning less than $30,000 a year are about as likely to choose "never" (14 percent) as those at all other income levels ($30,000 to $49,900 -- 12 percent; $50,000 to $74,900 -- 14 percent; more than $75,000 -- 12 percent).
  • Still, households with annual incomes of at least $75,000 are most likely to incur holiday debt.
More Americans expect to be in debt forever Economists and financial advisers said most consumers have not become grotesquely reckless when it comes to debt. Rather, we all have been doing what we can to deal with the aftermath of the Great Recession, officially considered to have lasted from 2007 to 2009, but which lingered long after that for many Americans.

"The reality is that we went through a really bad financial crisis, and there are consequences to that," said Angela Lyons, an associate professor at the University of Illinois and director of the school's Center for Economic and Financial Education. "Those consequences do not go away overnight, and we have to pay for them over time.

"I believe that, at heart, Americans are smart and they're doing what they can right now to reduce interest rates and to lower their debt," said Lyons, who has been identified by the U.S. Department of the Treasury as one of the nation's leading financial literacy scholars. "If they're not, this is a good time for them to look at those options."

Young debtors burdened but hopeful
Debt affects people of all ages, but an explosion of student debt is weighing down this generation of young adults like no other before. According to data from the Federal Reserve, U.S. student loan debt soared from $550 billion in 2007 to nearly $1 trillion by 2013.

An April 2014 Wells Fargo survey reported that 29 percent of millennials (people between 22 and 33 years old) are worried about paying off their student loans, and data from FICO show that the burden of student-loan debts is contributing to a downturn in the number of millennials carrying credit cards.

Yet, the latest CreditCards.com survey revealed that many young Americans -- 44 percent of all respondents (those currently with and without debt) between the ages of 18 and 29 -- somehow believe that they will pay off all their debts by the time they are 30 years old. Another 14 percent see themselves as debt free by 40. Only 5 percent of those young Americans thought they'd be trapped in debt for life.

Astonishingly, 57 percent of Americans 18 to 29 years old who are in debt right now believe they will pay it off by the time they reach 30 and only 6 percent think they'll die in debt.

Viale viewed these responses as unrealistic, at best.

"These numbers may be a bit on the optimistic side, but young people tend to answer financial questions very hopefully," Viale said. "When we ask 16- and 17-year-olds how much they think they'll make after they graduate from college, we never get an answer less than $100,000."

Elderly carry more debt
Meanwhile, more and more of the elderly are falling deeper into debt as they retire. One reason, once again: The lingering effects of the Great Recession, including much heavier mortgage burdens, caused in part by the need to raise cash during the recession. The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reported earlier this year that, from 2001 to 2011, the median amount owed by people 65 or older on their mortgages increased by a startling 82 percent, from about $43,400 to $79,000.

Until now, most young people have adopted the financial behavior of their parents, who also never formally learned about personal finance during their school years. That's a recipe for disaster.

-- Angela Lyons
Director, University of Illinois
Center for Economic and Financial Education

The CreditCards.com survey found that 17 percent of all Americans who are 65 or older believe they will never get out of debt. When we tighten the focus to people that age who now are paying off loans, the pessimism is far more profound: 31 percent -- nearly one in three -- believe they will die as debtors.

This is heartbreaking but not unprecedented, Lyons said.

"Historically, we've gone through bad economic cycles before, during which people have ended up in a situation where they had to take out more debt just to survive," she said.

The smartest plan now, according to Lyons and other experts: Take a clear-eyed look at your debt load and at how it affects your life. Contact a certified credit counselor. Look online or at local institutions for financial literacy information and courses.

"The value of financial education can't be understated," Viale said. "Until now, most young people have adopted the financial behavior of their parents, who also never formally learned about personal finance during their school years. That's a recipe for disaster.

"When people learn how to efficiently manage their finances, a world of opportunity opens up to them," he said. "Financial freedom doesn't require that you make a lot of money. It simply means that you know how to live within your means and make your money work for you as you achieve your financial goals."

Survey methodology
The survey was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International for CreditCards.com from Dec. 4 through Dec. 7. It contacted a representative national sample of 1,001 adults living in the continental United States. Telephone interviews were conducted in English and Spanish by landline (501) and cellphone (500, including 289 without a landline phone). Statistical results are weighted to correct known demographic discrepancies. The margin of sampling error for the complete set of weighted data is ± 3.6 percentage points. The margin of sampling error for those who reported debt is ± 4.3 percentage points.

See related: Fed: Recession robbed net worth of 6 in 10 American families

Published: December 9, 2014


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