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25 fascinating facts about personal debt

Debt. It's been a problem for almost everyone at some time, from the ancient Greeks to modern movie stars.

Throughout history if you didn't have the drachma, you literally could be enslaved by your debt, and you'd become the property of your creditor.

About 200 years after the first Olympic Games, ancient Greek lawmaker and statesman, Solon, changed that for his countrymen, outlawing debt bondage and canceling all outstanding debt at that time -- a highly popular move for those with rash spending habits, even before credit cards.

Today, many Greeks are wondering if the old sage will bail them out of the $6 billion in debt the country has racked up to host the 2004 Olympics. It's estimated it will take 40 years to pay it off, but that's not bad when you consider Montreal is still paying against its Olympic debt of $2 billion, held 28 years ago!

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If you think those debt numbers are amazing, consider these:

  • Some 1.6 million U.S. households -- one of every 73 -- filed for bankruptcy in 2003.
  • There are roughly 1.2 billion credit cards in use in the United States.
  • The original Diners Club card was issued in 1950 to let businessmen charge meals. It was pasteboard with a list of the 27 restaurants that accepted it printed on the back. The first plastic card came out in 1955. Today, there are about 20,000 different cards available in the U.S.
  • Studies show the average consumer is exposed to more than 3,000 marketing messages every day. In the last decade, it's been estimated, solicitations jumped from 1.52 billion annually to 4.29 billion.
  • Today roughly 24 percent of personal expenditures in this country are made with credit and debit cards.
  • Average per household debt in the U.S., not counting mortgage debt, is about $14,500 -- especially noteworthy because before the 1930s, most middle and working class people had no major debts. Banks would not lend to them; they rented their homes and if they did own a house, it was paid for as it was being built.
  • A typical credit card purchase ends up costing 112 percent more than if cash were used.
  • A $1,000 charge on an average credit card will take almost 22 years to pay, and will cost more than $2,300 in interest ($3,300 total) -- if only 2 percent minimum payments are made.
  • Some 40 percent of American families annually spend more than they earn.
  • About 60 percent of active credit card accounts are not paid off monthly.
  • Average credit card debt among all American households is $8,400.
  • Average card debt among people who have at least one card is $9,205 -- triple what it was in 1990.
  • Average personal wealth of a 50-year-old American, including home equity: less than $40,000.
  • A typical American family today pays about $1,200 annually in credit card interest.
  • The average interest rate on credit cards is 18.9 percent.
  • Last year the credit card industry took in $43 billion in card fees.
  • Nine of 10 Americans claim credit card debt has never been a source of worry.
  • But 47 percent would refuse to tell a friend how much they owe.
  • Twenty-three percent of Americans admit to maxing out a credit card.
  • Eleven percent of Americans admit card debts went to collection.
  • Thirteen percent of Americans have been 30 days late paying credit card bills in the past year.
  • The average graduate student has six credit cards and one in seven owes more than $15,000.
  • People using credit cards in fast food restaurants spend up to 50 percent more than when they pay cash.
  • The personal savings rate in the United States has dropped from 8 percent in the 1980s to just under 2 percent since 2000.
  • Medical debts sink the ship in one of every 20 bankruptcies. Typical health care debt: $25,000. Typical victim: a senior on a fixed income. Typical scenario: pricey prescriptions bought on high-interest credit cards.

Paul Bannister is a freelance writer based in Oregon.

-- Posted: Sept. 20, 2004
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