Consumer debt has more than doubled in the past 10 years to record levels, making it hard for many families to cope.
Consumer debt hit a record $1.98 trillion in October 2003, according to the most recent figures from the Federal Reserve. That debt — which includes credit cards and car loans, but not mortgages — translates to some $18,700 per U.S. household.
At the same time, the government says the nation's savings rate dropped to just 2 percent of after-tax income in the first half of the year. That means many people lack the means to deal with financial emergencies, much less their eventual retirement.
Experts worry about the impact not only on individual families but on society as a whole.
"The Depression generation is passing on, and we're losing their values," said Howard Dvorkin, president of the nonprofit Consolidated Credit Counseling Services in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "Now we've got an entire generation that doesn't know anything about thrift and careful spending. It's tearing the fabric that made this country great."
In the most recent survey of consumer finances by the Federal Reserve, the ratio of family debt payments to income fell overall from 1998 to 2001, but remained at about 16 percent. The percentage of income going to pay off debt for the poorest fifth of Americans, however, rose from 14.9 percent to 17.7 percent.
A family's color and education have a lot to do with its ability to pay off debts. The net worth of white families was more than four times that of non-white and Hispanic families. People with college degrees had more than seven times the assets of people who did not finish high school.
Just how did American consumers get so deeply in debt?
Robert D. Manning, a sociology professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology who wrote "Credit Card Nation — The Consequences of America's Addiction to Credit," says the problem dates back to the 1980s, when financial institutions began issuing credit cards and making loans to people who wouldn't have qualified in the past.
"At the same time, people had this sense of entitlement based on the idea that this generation was expected to outperform the earlier generation," Manning said. "It was OK to buy yourself a better standard of living than your parents, and the banks would help you do it."
The nation's credit card debt currently stands at $735 billion, or nearly $7,000 per household. And since about 40 percent of card users pay their balances in full each month, the household card debt of those who carry balances is closer to $12,000.
Americans have become champion shoppers, says Joel Greenberg, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Novadebt credit counseling service in Freehold, N.J.
"Through the go-go '90s, the irrational exuberance wasn't just in the stock markets," Greenberg said. "It was throughout society. We became phenomenal consumers — and deplorable savers."
What's surprising about the nation's debt is that it has continued to rise despite record numbers of mortgage refinancing from 2001 to 2003, many of them yielding cash that consumers have used to pay down credit card balances.
Mark Zandi, chief economist at Economy.com, points out that the rate of growth of card debt has slowed "because people are using their homes as cash machines."
But while refinancings have allowed upper income households to put their balance sheets in order, lower income families without that option are finding it harder to cope, he said.
"They're the folks filing for bankruptcy in record numbers, they're the ones facing repossession and foreclosures," Zandi said.
Consumer bankruptcies have exceeded 1 million a year since 1996, hitting a record of 1.54 million in 2002. Bankruptcy filings totaled 1.25 million during the first nine months of 2003 and could set a new record when full-year tabulations are done by the Washington-based American Bankruptcy Institute.
For Bruce and Lorraine Esbensen of Clifton Heights, Pa., trouble started when they spent lavishly on their wedding six years ago. They soon found themselves falling behind on their bills.
"Creditors were calling, and I knew if I paid one, I couldn't pay the other," Lorraine Esbensen remembers. "It was so painful I got to the point where I didn't want to answer the phone."
Credit counselors helped the couple work out a repayment plan, but it still took more than four years to pay down their debt.
There's debate about how the high debt levels and demanding repayment schedules will affect the economy.
Americans currently spend a near-record 18.1 percent of their after-tax income to cover debts, including mortgages. That limits their ability to borrow more to spend more, and consumer spending accounts for about two-thirds of the economy.
Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has pointed out that because of low interest rates, consumers can more easily handle their debt so the level is "not a significant cause for concern."