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Poll: 1 in 5 debtors say they'll be in debt forever

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As holiday shopping swings into high gear, more Americans than ever say they doubt they will ever shed their debts, according to the latest annual debt survey by CreditCards.com.

According to the poll, 21 percent of those with debt predict they will never be rid of it. That's up from 18 percent in 2014 and 9 percent in 2013 who said their debt heading into the holiday season seemed insurmountable.

And yet, at the same time the poll found more people consigning themselves to endless debt, it also found a surge in people living debt-free. This year, 22 percent of those surveyed said they have no debt, compared with 14 percent a year earlier.

Debt haves, have-nots

The polling data seem to show personal debt heading two different directions. While that might seem like a contradiction, economists say the figures reveal two distinct trends in personal finance.

Since the recession in 2008-09, for instance, many people have reduced their debts and adopted healthier financial habits after years of becoming overextended on credit. In the second quarter of 2015, for instance, the percentage of U.S. consumers who pay off their credit card balances every month reached a post-recession high of nearly 30 percent, according to the American Bankers Association. 

Yet at the same time, others struggle with job losses and high health care bills that can make their financial futures seem bleak -- especially if they are already carrying a lot of debt. For example, student loan delinquencies are on the rise, according to the Federal Reserve.

"You're talking about two distinct groups there, so it's not surprising," says James Chessen, chief economist with the ABA. "Generally, I'm bullish on consumers and how they have been handling their debt. However, there are some delinquencies, and there are some people who for various reasons have difficulty paying their obligations."

Overall household debt is still 5 percent below its 2008 peak, the Federal Reserve said last month.

Debt regrets? You have options
Experts who work with people in financial distress say that oftentimes people who feel hopeless about their debts actually have options. They say people in debt should reject the tendency to ignore their problems and instead look honestly at their lives for potential solutions.

"In every area of your finances, when you feel stuck, you have to ask the question, 'What can I do differently now?'" says Keola Harrington, a financial counselor with Clarifi, a nonprofit credit counseling agency in the Philadelphia area. "There are ways to get out of debt. There are always options."

The first step to eliminating debt can start with talking honestly to somebody about your finances, such as a friend or family member or credit counselor, Harrington says. From there, you might brainstorm ideas, such as cutting back on dining out, or swearing off using credit cards, or finding another job. Solutions can also include better budgeting, assembling a debt management plan, talking with creditors and, as a final resort, even filing for bankruptcy protection.

AVOIDING HOLIDAY DEBT

Kathleen Riggs, a Utah State University extension professor of family and consumer sciences, offers these tips for staying out of debt around the holidays:

  • Minimize purchased gifts. Rather than buying gifts, consider giving "coupons" to perform chores or spend time with somebody. Giving baked goods can also cut down on costs and can be more personal than something store-bought.
  • Adhere to a spending limit. For all the gifts you are buying, make a list and stick to a budget.
  • Consider practical gifts. Instead of one more holiday decoration that will go into a box for most of the year, look into unglamorous gifts such as socks, gloves and kitchen utensils.
  • Consider gift size if shipping by mail. With postal rates rising, sending a big box can cost a small fortune. Go with something smaller.
  • Eat in more. Since you'll probably have a pleasant holiday meal and will be spending money on gifts, look to cut back where you can -- such as on eating out at restaurants. Spend money on what you need to, not on unnecessary expenses.

Holidays can add pressure to add debt
The holidays can be especially stressful on finances because of the pressure to give gifts and decorate. An October survey by the National Retail Federation found that the average shopper expects to spend about $805 on holiday items in 2015, up about $70 from 10 years ago.

Harrington says the holidays can cause people to take actions that are financially unwise, such as skipping an electric bill to buy presents for their children.

Over the years, retailers and marketers have made spending money around the holidays easier than ever. Nearly half of all holiday shopping will take place online, according to the NRF survey.

Even when shoppers hit the stores, businesses use psychological techniques to encourage spending. "It becomes difficult when people go to a mall, and they know they just want to pick up a sweater at a store," says Kathleen Riggs, a Utah State University extension professor of family and consumer sciences. "But they are surrounded with decorations, sale signs in the windows and the music, and they get caught up in that." 

The best advice for avoiding holiday debt, she says, is to not become too swept up in the season and make poor financial choices. Instead, be disciplined: Make a list and stick to it.

According to the CreditCards.com survey, 37 percent of respondents said they had incurred holiday debt this year at the time the question was asked in late November. Of those, the vast majority indicated they expect to have those debts paid off within three months.

People ages 30-64 were more likely than average to be carrying holiday debt, the survey showed. Of those with holiday debt, about three-quarters said they expected to have it paid off within three months, although 15 percent said it would take more than six months.

Age, race also factor in
The survey also showed that people's outlook on their debts tended to change based on race, age, political affiliation and other demographic factors.

  • People who said they were not employed were more likely to say they had no debt than people with part- or full-time jobs. Of those without jobs, 32 percent said they had no debt -- twice as many as those with jobs.
  • People without children were also more likely to say they were debt-free: 26 percent, compared with 12 percent of those with children.
  • The average American believes he or she will be debt-free at age 54.
  • People ages 18-29 are much more likely to believe they will pay off their debts than older people. Just 11 percent of people surveyed in that age range said they doubted they would pay off their debts, compared with 24 percent of those ages 50 to 64 and 35 percent of those 65 and up.
  • Whether or not people said they have debt also varies by race. Hispanics (28 percent) and whites (26 percent) were most likely to say they were free of debt. But whites were also more likely than average to say they would never escape their debts. 
Survey methodology
The CreditCards.com telephone survey of 1,004 U.S. adults was conducted Nov. 19-22, 2015, by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, including 502 telephone interviews conducted by landline and 502 by cellphone. Statistical results are weighted to correct known demographic discrepancies, and the margin of sampling error for the weighted data is plus or minus 3.6 percentage points. 

See related: 2014 survey: 18 percent say they'll be in debt forever

Published: December 8, 2015


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Updated: 08-30-2016


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