How You Stack Up: What Does the Average American’s Debt Look Like?

Debt is an interesting beast in today’s culture. Many of us are carrying it around on our backs. It weighs us down, but on the surface, we look the same.

Debt may be unseen, but it’s certainly not unknown.

While debt can be isolating, there are so many people out there waging their own personal wars against it, you might find yourself wondering how you stack up against the average American.

How do I compare? Do I have more debt than my neighbours? How bad is this really getting?

These questions plague thousands of Americans as they seek to assess their own situations. So PerkStreet set out to give you a peek into what the average American’s debt looks like.

Debt Early, Debt Often

If you are battling debt right now, it’s probably because you started early. Most Americans take on their first payment-based debt while they’re still in high school. College is a whole other story. In 2008, 66% of the graduates left school with student loans to pay off, up from 45% a decade and a half earlier. Today, the average college graduate enters the job market toting $24,000 worth of education debt.

The average senior citizen in America now has 5 or more credit cards, and over the course of a whole lifetime, the average American will pay $600,000 in interest. Just think where the kids graduating now will be in 40 years…

Credit Cards vs. Loans

According to, if you have fewer than 13 credit obligations on file, you’re doing better than average. Is a dozen debts really necessary? Of course not, but it’s still less than the typical American. According to, of those 13 debts, 9 are likely to be credit cards while the other 4 are installment loans.

The average American with at least one credit card has 3.5 credit cards in his or her wallet, according to, meaning, like Lays potato chips, the credit card companies are betting you can’t take just one. And they’re winning that bet, too.

When it Comes to Cards, More Debt is More Likely

If you’re carrying a credit card in your wallet, the odds are, you have more than $1,000 in card-related debt. Some 60% of credit card holders owe $1,000 or more, according to MyFico. If you’re scoffing at the thought of $1,000 worth of credit card debt, don’t. Paying off a $1,000 credit card bill with an interest rate of 18.9% by making minimum payments will take almost 7-and-a-half years!

Of course, there are people with way more than $1,000 debt. About 15% of Americans owe more than $10,000 to credit card companies, and when you factor in all other debts (not counting mortgages), that percentage jumps up to 37%. To give you a sense of what that means, the population of men 18 years of age or older in America is about 37% of the total population in the U.S.

Your Problem is Spending

According to MSN Money, some 43% of households are spending more than they take in each year. That percentage is comparable to the percentage of Americans that will make a New Year’s resolution this year, by the way, and, while those two statistics are completely unrelated, one can’t help but wonder if there’s a connection.

America is Still a Culture of Debt, but that is Changing

While most of this information seems like it should be accompanied by thunder and lightning, debt, as it faces the average American, is not all doom and gloom.

But it gets worse before it gets better: A new report released last week suggests that 11% of Americans defaulted on loans for the first time in the last two years. Considering 22% of Americans defaulted on loans during that time period, this new data suggests that half the people in America who can’t pay there debts never had a problem making payments before the recession.

And now the light at the end of the tunnel: Debit cards are changing all of this.

According to the Federal Reserve, debit cards grew in popularity by 41% from 2003 to 2006 in terms of total transactions. During the same time period there was no detectable change in the popularity of credit cards.

More recently, a survey by revealed that 39% of Americans now use debit cards as their primary means of spending compared to just 21% who rely primarily on credit cards.

By switching from credit to debit spending, many Americans are freeing themselves from crippling debt and finding a spending method that forces them to live within their means.

How do you spend your money? Have you moved away from credit in favor of debit? Let us know in the comments section below.

Kyle is the Editor of the PerkStreet Blog and works full-time on the PerkStreet team managing communications and public relations efforts in-house. As Editor, he writes alongside personal fiance bloggers from around the web who have also created great reputations for helping people learn valuable information about budgeting, fighting debt and saving money. His personal goal is to make sure that the articles on the PerkStreet Blog provide the most relevant, interesting and informative content about personal finance you'll find.Kyle is tasked with upholding the values of transparency, community and education that PerkStreet holds dear. You can find him on Twitter @KylePs80 or email him directly at kyle.psaty at perkstreet dot com. Interested in writing for the PerkStreet Blog? Have something you think the PerkStreet Blog should write about? Drop him a line any time.Below is Kyle's latest writing, but don't forget to visit the PerkStreet Blog Homepage to find the latest tips, news and insights in the world of personal finance from everyone who contributes to this online publication!

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