U.S. Consumer Debt and Loans Continue to Increase

It’s official: Americans are swimming in debt. And many of us are barely keeping our heads above water.

The term “consumer debt” refers to the debt accumulated through student loans, car loans, and credit cards. The one thing this debt umbrella doesn’t include is the mortgage on your home. Data shows that Americans are all too willing to utilize these financing options; in some cases, they have no alternative. Compared to figures from a year ago, consumer debt is up by 6%. Even more startlingly, the month of September broke yet another record when consumer debt rose by $19.3 billion.

The seemingly endless amount of debt we’re accruing is particularly concerning because our wages have barely moved within the same period. And our spending rose only at a rate of 2.4% during that time.

One thing that consumers are buying: cars. Auto loan popularity has risen by 38% from the third quarter of 2012, so it’s no surprise that the average borrower has $17,966 in auto debt. Last year, new car sales hit an all-time high. Not only are car loans being pursued more frequently, but their balances are also increasing. Loan terms are stretching, which means that outstanding balances are growing, too. In fact, outstanding balances for both new and used auto loans and leases jumped up to $1,098 trillion this quarter. Essentially, the terms of vehicle loans are getting longer and the costs are increasing.

Then, there are the student loans. Student loans owned by the government increased by $14.2 billion just during the month of September — and by $37.5 billion during the third quarter. And the total number of student loans owned by the government and private-sector lenders clocked in at $1.396 trillion at September’s end. The cost of education is higher than it’s ever been, but many students have no other way besides these loans to fund their educational efforts.

Credit card debt has always been common, but these days, so is having a high interest rate. For banks, credit cards are the biggest money-makers due to fees and customers not paying off their balances each month. It’s a system that sets up less financially sound consumers to fail. People who already have problems with their credit are more likely to rack up higher interest rates when they can’t pay off their credit cards. They’ll then have a more urgent need to borrow money, creating a vicious cycle of interest and fees. Of course, banks know this.

Ultimately, you can’t blame the banks — they aren’t literally forcing customers to use their credit cards or incur debt — but the “portrait of an American debt slave” is becoming an all too common sight in today’s world.

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