With the rising cost of housing, food, gas, transportation and medical care, more Americans are now falling deeper into debt as median incomes fell 3% over the last two years, according to NerdWallet’s annual study on credit card and other forms of household debt.
In its 2021 American Household Credit Card Debt Study released Tuesday, NerdWallet found that U.S. households are a collective $15.24 trillion in debt, representing a 6.2% increase from 2020 to 2021. Some 70% of that debt or $10.67 trillion represents mortgage debt which increased by 8.22%, the sharpest rise in any kind of debt measured in the study. The average mortgage debt owed by U.S. households is $207,861. The average U.S. household was found to owe $155,622 overall.
Credit card balances carried from month to month was the only kind of debt that fell over the period and it was by a strong 4% to $357 billion in 2021. All credit card balances, not just those carried over from one month to the next, were shown to be steadily increasing. Auto loans jumped by 6.1% over the period to an overall $1.44 trillion, while student loans increased 2.46% to a collective $1.58 trillion. The average U.S. household has $28,882 in auto loans and $59,042 in student loans.
The study, which includes statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, was also informed by an online survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults conducted by The Harris Poll.
More than a third of respondents, 35%, said in the last year their finances had gotten worse. Some 38% of this group blamed their situation on decreased household income, while 36% said their expenses had increased. Another 21% said their income was impacted by job loss.
While median household income fell 3% over the past two years, the overall cost of living increased by 7%, reversing a decadelong trend in which income growth exceeded inflation, the report said.
“The past year-and-a-half was already tough for the millions of Americans who lost jobs. Now, we’re faced with rising costs for much-needed items — food, housing, gas, transportation and medical care,” Sara Rathner, credit cards expert at NerdWallet, explained in the report. “It remains difficult for many to catch up.”
Some 78% of the respondents in the survey said they had received some form of pandemic assistance since March 2020 and the leading uses they found for the money were paying for necessities and adding it to their savings.
Financial inequality also worsened over the period, according to the study. Nearly half, or 47% of individuals with a household income of less than $50,000, reported that their financial situation had gotten worse. U.S. households with incomes of more than $100,000 were more likely to report that their financial situation got better.
Rathner said with people getting out more now than at the start of the pandemic, the temptation to spend will be stronger. She urged consumers to create a spending plan to help manage their finances.
“If you’re getting out of the house more now than before, it’s tempting to spend on all the things you denied yourself over the past 18 months,” she said. “It’s OK to treat yourself, but create a spending plan first. Make space in your budget not just for savings, debt repayment and necessary expenses, but also for fun. That can help you stay on track without feeling like you have to deprive yourself.”