Too many Americans are living on the edge, burdened with debt that grows like a cancer and made vulnerable by a lack of savings to deal with emergencies. And this sad situation coincides with the longest period of economic recovery — starting in June 2009 — in postwar history. Unemployment is near record lows and the stock market is near record highs. Yet the burden of debt is growing on all generations.
During the government shutdown it became painfully clear that way too many people with good-paying and reasonably secure jobs, plus excellent retirement benefits, are living paycheck to paycheck. Missing a paycheck during the shutdown forced many to choose between food and medicine or to cut back on essential activities for their children.
It’s not just a lack of savings that’s the problem; it’s the burden of credit card debt that is cause for despair. The latest report from CreditCards.com reveals that more than half of the people with credit card debt have been carrying the balance for at least a year, including 23 percent for at least three years — and 14 percent report they can’t recall how long they’ve been carrying a balance!
It’s a vicious cycle, because the interest burden quickly grows to exceed the cost of the original purchase. If you’re only making the minimum monthly payment on a credit card balance, the payoff period could extend as long as 18 years — and the interest burden becomes more than twice as much as the original purchase!
Recently I’ve been writing about the $1.5 trillion of student loan debt that is entrapping not only the millennial generation but many parents who co-signed on loans. At least they are still working and have time to deal with debt. But seniors living on fixed incomes and facing rising medical expenses are one of the fastest-growing groups seeking protection in bankruptcy.
According to a survey by MagnifyMoney, nearly one-third of all Americans over age 50 are carrying non-mortgage debt from month to month. On average, those with debt carry $4,786 in credit card debt and $12,490 in total non-mortgage debt.
Debt is like quicksand: The more you struggle, the deeper you sink. Debt is the hardest lesson to learn the “hard way.” So if you are feeling comfortably secure as you read this, please reach out to encourage someone who is just starting out on this journey and pass along these tips:
• Seek credit counseling. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling (www.NFCC.org) is the first place you should turn — if money worries are keeping you up at night. That call will connect you to the nearest local agency staffed with people you can trust.
• Beware credit consolidation offers. Typically, they will tell you to stop paying your bills so you can set aside money that will let them negotiate the balance. But this can backfire, putting your other assets and your job on the line.
• Use balance transfers to eliminate interest. Transferring a credit card balance to a zero-rate card can work for you. Check best deals at Bankrate.com or CreditCards.com.
• Make it automatic. It’s never easy to “decide” to pay down a bill or contribute to a savings plan. But if it’s an automatic deduction, you get used to living without that money every month.
Terry Savage is a registered investment adviser; she responds to questions on her blog at TerrySavage.com.