Shop till you drop is not just a silly phrase. For the majority of Americans, it has become an uneasy reality.
Consumer debt is at a record high. In the first quarter of 2018, Americans owed $3.824 trillion, up 5.1 percent from the same time period last year. This includes all debts except mortgages. As our economy grows, so does our spiraling tower of debt. Debt is a worry for the future, but Americans are happily living in the present. For now.
Over the past decade, consumer debt has surged almost 50 percent.
Automobile loans have increased to $1.1 trillion, an increase of almost 4 percent from last year. Credit card debt rose to $977 billion, an annual increase of 5 percent. This is actually down 5.6 percent from the pre-Trump 2016 era.
Student loans have seen a rapid increase, to a record high of $1.51 trillion. The annual increase of 5.1 percent is high, but it shows a decrease from previous years. From 2007 to 2012, student loans rose from 11 percent to 15 percent annually. While actual student enrollment has decreased, student loan balances have skyrocketed 146 percent during the past decade, from $619 million to $1.521 trillion. Once they graduate, today’s students will remain shackled to student loan debts for decades. College debt has become its own industry, with private college investments, corporations tending to students’ every need, new college-related construction projects, with administrators racking in exorbitant salaries. The question is, who will pay for all these amenities?
Wealthy and middle-class parents will go to great lengths to get their kids into the best colleges to ensure their future. This allows these institutions to keep raising the price of tuition. For many college graduates, the future is looking increasingly bleak as they are facing repayment of debts instead of buying a house or a vehicle, which was the typical post-graduation step of their parents’ generation.
With banks happily lending students for them to get a degree, many college graduates are facing indentured servitude instead of a better style of living. Upward mobility, the dream that created and sustained Americans for generations, may turn into the American nightmare. College loan debt is a timebomb waiting to explode.
The economy is showing signs of growth, unemployment is at an all-time low, and consumer confidence is high enough for record spending and accumulation of debt. Many low and middle-class families are living with high debts and very little savings. The poorer the household, the more severe the financial situation.
High prices are making it increasingly difficult to meet necessary household expenses and is forcing many to increase their borrowing just to stay afloat. The answer is to decrease both spending and the accrual of debt.
Seventy-six million, or 60 percent, of U.S. households, survive on a net income of less than $65,000. One-third of these households are feeling the strain of debt repayment, whether it is mortgages, car loans, or credit card bills. These households lack enough savings to survive a layoff for six months and are situated to fall behind on their debt repayments.
Twenty-five million households have an income of $23,000 or less. Close to half of these low-income earners are feeling increasingly uncertain of their ability to meet basic spending needs.
Higher income households have fared easier. Of the top 40 percent of wage earners, a mere 3.6 percent are worried about meeting basic needs and repayment of debt. A soaring stock market has helped top income earners to reap the benefits of a growing economy. These households are facing a debt of only 10 percent of their income, while the middle and low-income earners are increasingly struggling.
Middle and low-income earners are unable to accumulate sufficient savings to cover emergencies, with close to half unable to cover $400 in unexpected expenses without going into debt. Merely meeting basic living costs is a constant financial strain. Rents have increased by 30 percent during the past eight years. Eight percent of working Millennials require parental assistance to meet rent expenses.
While rents are soaring, income has increased at a much slower rate. Hourly wages for low-income earners have only grown 0.5 percent a year since 2010 when adjusted for inflation.
Millennials aren’t the only age group struggling with higher rents and sluggish wage increases. Seventeen percent of wage earners between the ages of 55 and 65 are feeling financially pressured, with those facing fixed incomes in the near future that is equally bleak.
Many seniors are struggling with higher rents and higher gas and utility costs. Some are surviving by cutting their food bill and surviving by mainly eating peanut butter sandwiches. Others can no longer meet their car loan payment and face repossession. Lower income household is becoming especially vulnerable to defaults. Motorhome loan delinquencies greater than 30 days have increased by 2.9 percent. These delinquencies are expected to rise.
An increase in wages would allow more Americans to meet rent and other basic expenses, including repayment of debt. If delinquencies and defaults continue, banks could increase interest rates, forcing low and middle-income earners to curtail spending at low-priced retailers such as Walmart, putting the profits of those retailers at risk. While tax reforms are being celebrated and lauded, a low-income household will only see about $26.00 more in monthly disposable income.
While everyone keeps saying the economy is thriving, it is clear much of the effects have been experienced by high-income households able to meet living expenses and repay their debts. Low and middle-class wage earners with debt are finding it increasingly difficult to repay loans while eking out a survival existence. The American dream has darkened for many. Lowering household debt remains the only light at the end of the tunnel for many.