"People are conflicted: 'Is it because of choices or circumstances?'" she says. "People think that credit problems are something that happen to somebody else because that person didn't manage their money well. But for most of the consumers that I talk to, it's a combination of financial habits and life events that usually put them over the edge. They realize they could have done some things better, but usually there's a catalyst behind the events, whether it's medical bills or divorce, change of income -- any of those things."
Influential income factors
Americans' opinions on the causes of debt differ somewhat by income, with higher-income respondents feeling more in control of their finances. Almost all of those earning $50,000 or more per year agree that debt can be controlled through disciplined spending or savings (96 percent), compared to a still-robust 87 percent of those who earn less than $50,000.
“It's a combination of financial habits and life events that usually put them over the edge.”
Attitudes among those earning less than $50,000 appear more conflicted. Lower-wage earners are more likely to agree that debt often happens due to circumstances beyond someone's control (74 percent vs. 60 percent for those earning $50,000-plus). Yet personal responsibility does play a role: Lower-wage earners agree that debt usually results from bad decisions (67 percent vs. 52 percent for higher earners).
Debtors vs. non-debtors
Nearly two-thirds of non-debtors say debt usually results from bad decisions, compared to 56 percent for those who carry debt. Once in debt, people seem to accept their circumstances. Americans with debt are much more likely to agree that debt is just a part of everyday life (80 percent vs. 60 percent for non-debtors).
Acceptance of debt isn't an attitude that serves people well. While Bankrate's study shows debt's pervasiveness at all age levels, finance professor Lewis Mandell of the University of Buffalo was surprised to see debt among 67 percent of those in the 50 to 64 age category -- a time when it is traditionally easier to save. "If they're going to have any hope of surviving in retirement, I would have expected those debt levels to have gone down much more substantially, but they don't drop off very much," he says.
He adds that the phrasing of the questions can lead to affirmative responses: "If you ask a platitude, people will agree with it -- 'I should be saving more money,' that sort of thing," he says. "So that didn't surprise me very much."