Consumer Credit Abyss

Each time the Federal Reserve cut interest rates, it was with the hope consumers would borrow more and spend more.

And they did.

Consumers borrowed so much, the average household is now $19,000 in debt, not including a mortgage.

Borrowing may be easy, and paying back is already tough, but as CBS News Correspondent Mark Strassmann reports, making repayments may soon become even harder.

Christine Muckle can attest to those difficulties.

Muckle wanted to lead a certain lifestyle — one she couldn't really afford, and now her family is in deep financial trouble.

"It was like quicksand. It just, it just happened," says her husband Patrick Muckle.

The Muckles' credit cards are maxed-out. One has a balance of about $7,500 due, another has about $6,400 and a third has almost $12,000 to be paid off.

They had scant savings to rely on when their income dropped, and so turned to the plastic.

Christine Muckle told Strassmann their situation is "extremely bad."

Patrick Muckle described their circumstances as "about $53,000 bad."

In part, like so many people, the Muckles were seduced into unmanageable debt by today's interest rates — now at a 45-year low.

Those rates make American consumers swoon. They keep borrowing, and spending, buying bigger homes and bigger cars.

But experts worry this is the year that love affair could come to a bad end.

"It's going to send a shock wave through some people," says economic forecaster Delos Smith.

"They really have only one direction, the interest rates. They have to go up," he says.

If that happens, for instance, the cost of a 30-year adjustable rate mortgage with a 4 percent interest rate will cost $60 more per month for every $100,000 borrowed if interest rates are raised one point.

A two-point rise would cost an extra $120, and so on.

Rates could also climb on credit cards, and other loans with adjustable rates.

"The new year's resolution for everyone with high cost consumer debt is to pay it off as quickly as possible," says Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America.

That opportunity has passed for the Muckles. Whenever credit card companies lowered their interest rates, the family spent the difference.

"I didn't do the smart thing," says Christine Muckle.

Muckle says she wishes they would have done "anything that would have saved money, so that once we hit that rocky road, we could take our debt instead of using those credit cards."

That would helped them before the bills really hit home -- And the rate of interest becomes an alarm.

  • Lauren Johnston

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