Personal Finance

Consumer debt is set to reach $4 trillion by the end of 2018

Key Points
  • Consumer debt has grown since 2012 and is poised to reach a new high by the end of this year.
  • Individuals are spending about 10 percent of their income each month paying nonmortgage debts including auto loans, credit cards, personal and student loans.
  • You should evaluate three key areas when thinking about managing these balances.
Photo by Britt Erlanson via Getty Images

Americans are in a borrowing mood, and their total tab for consumer debt could reach a record $4 trillion by the end of 2018.

That's according to LendingTree, a loan comparison website, which analyzed data from the Federal Reserve on nonmortgage debts including credit cards, and auto, personal and student loans.

Americans owe more than 26 percent of their annual income to this debt. That's up from 22 percent in 2010. It's also higher than debt levels during the mid-2000s when credit availability soared.

Debts on auto loans and credit cards are climbing by more than 7 percent annually, while housing debt is rising at a little more than 2 percent.

Consumer credit has been rising by 5 percent to 6 percent for about two years.

LendingTree projects total consumer debt will top $4 trillion by the end of 2018.

That kind of growth is not surprising, according to LendingTree chief economist Tendayi Kapfidze, and is in keeping with the growth of consumer debt that has been happening since 2012.

At these levels, consumers are spending about 10 percent of their income paying these debts each month, Kapfidze said. From 2000 to 2008, that averaged about 12 percent to 13 percent, he said.

Still, credit card delinquency rates, which are at 2.4 percent, are low.

"It's a level of debt that's pretty manageable for consumers on aggregate," Kapfidze said.

But there are some things you should consider if you find your personal debts rising.

Know where your money is going

While paying 10 percent of your income per month toward nonmortgage debts is "not necessarily a danger zone," you should watch how those debts are allocated, said Roger Ma, a certified financial planner and founder of lifelaidout.

High interest credit card debt that continues to climb every month is concerning, while lower interest rate debt on auto loans or student loans may not have the same cause for worry, Ma said.

What will happen to interest rates

The Federal Reserve plans to raise interest rates several times this year, which will inevitably make consumers' debt burden more expensive.

"Consumers should probably consider refinancing some of their debts," Kapfidze said.

 How US consumers impact the Fed's interest rates
How US consumers impact the Fed's interest rates

That could mean moving credit card debt at a 16 percent annual percentage rate to a personal loan that offers 6 percent to 8 percent. It could also mean refinancing your student loans at a fixed rate to guard against those rate hikes.

What's in your budget

Regardless of your personal debt levels, you should have a good sense of how much money you have coming in and going out, according to Ma.

If you find you're spending beyond your means, cut unnecessary subscriptions, reduce your bank fees and scale back on shopping.

If your credit card debt is growing, switch to using your debit card only, Ma said. From there, you can whittle down your debts by attacking the balances with the highest rates first. If you have small balances, you may want to knock those off first.

"Paying that off sooner will allow a person to decrease the number of obligations and also give them a nice short-term win," Ma said.

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