While credit has increased Americans’ purchasing power — helping them buy homes, cars and other goods — it’s also normalized debt across the U.S. As of November 2020, consumer debt is at $14.2 trillion, with Americans carrying an average personal debt of $92,727.
The overall debt figure includes credit card balances, student loans, mortgages and more. Here’s a closer look at debt across the U.S. by type of account using data from Experian’s 2020 Consumer Credit Review.
Snapshot of consumer debt
|Type of debt||Average debt in 2020|
Credit card debt
There’s a lot to like about credit cards: They help you build credit, quickly pay for purchases and earn rewards. Experian found that 90 percent of U.S. adults have at least one credit card on their credit reports, and 75 percent of adults carry a balance from month to month. Among that demographic, the average credit card balance is $5,315.
Carrying a credit card balance is never a great idea because of accruing interest charges, but credit card balances overall are moving in the right direction. This type of debt saw the largest drop from 2019 to 2020, decreasing by 14 percent. Additionally, the percentage of consumer credit card accounts 30 or more days past due decreased by 29 percent in 2020.
Personal loan debt
Personal loans allow you to borrow a lump sum of money and pay it back in installments over time. Consumers can use the funds to cover nearly any expense, from debt consolidation to home improvements and emergency expenses. Nearly a quarter of U.S. adults have this type of debt, and the average balance stands at $16,458. The percentage of accounts that were 30 or more days past due decreased by 27 percent between 2019 and 2020.
Auto loan debt
Most car shoppers don’t have the cash to pay for a vehicle upfront, so they take out an auto loan and pay down the balance over time. As the second-most popular type of credit, two-thirds of U.S. adults have at least one auto loan. The average balance on this type of debt is $19,703, holding fairly steady with 2019 numbers. The percentage of auto loan accounts 30 or more days past due dropped by 22 percent in 2020.
Student loan debt
Student loans help millions of Americans pay for higher education every year. The average balance for this type of debt was $38,792 in 2020, representing a 9 percent increase. But this spike can be at least partly attributed to the suspension of student loan payments, both from the federal government and from private student loan lenders. With fewer borrowers paying down their student loan debt, average balances will grow as others add new loans.
The payment suspension also caused student loan delinquency rates to plunge. The percentage of student loan accounts 30 or more days past due in 2020 decreased by a whopping 93 percent. However, as hardship programs expire, the delinquency rate may increase at some point in 2021.
Home equity lines of credit (HELOCs) allow homeowners to borrow money using their homes as collateral. The average HELOC balance is $41,954, and 12 percent of adults in the U.S. have a HELOC account.
As with all other debts on this list, Americans were generally current on their payments in 2020. The delinquency rate dropped by 26 percent and balances decreased by 7 percent compared to 2019 levels.
Mortgages by far represent the largest outstanding debt in the U.S. The average mortgage balance stands at $208,185, and 44 percent of U.S. adults have this type of debt.
Fueled by a record drop in mortgage interest rates — which reached historic lows in 2020 and continue to hover around 3 percent in 2021 — consumers across the U.S. bought homes despite the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic fallout.
Accounts 30 or more days past due decreased by 46 percent in 2020. While that’s a significant drop in the delinquency rate, it’s likely because government programs, like the CARES Act, provided relief for millions of mortgage borrowers across the country. The relief package applies to loans backed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Federal Housing Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Forbearance allows financially struggling homeowners to temporarily suspend their mortgage payments. An estimated 2.8 million homeowners across the U.S. were in some form of mortgage forbearance program in December 2020, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.
What should I do if I’m in debt?
The average American has $92,727 in consumer debt — and if you have a balance, the worst thing you can do is ignore it. Interest may accrue on your account, and missed payments could lead to late fees and damage to your credit.
If you’re looking to get out of debt, here’s where to start:
- Make a list of what you owe. List all of your debts with balances, due dates, interest rates, minimum monthly payments and contact information.
- Go over your budget. Write down how much you earn each month and how much you spend on bills, such as rent, utilities, groceries and minimum debt payments.
- Find room for debt payments. Subtract your bills from your income to see what’s left over. Put this amount toward your debt each month. You can also put windfalls, such as tax refunds, toward your principal balances.
- Prioritize the debts. Financial experts usually recommend using one of two methods: the snowball method or the avalanche method. With the snowball method, you pay off your smallest balance first, then move one by one to the largest. With the avalanche method, you can focus on paying off the balance with the highest interest rate first to save more money and work down from there.
- Make a goal. Based on your debt balance and your extra payments, how long will it take until you’re debt-free? For example, if you want to pay off $5,500 in credit card debt and you can pay $500 each month, then the balance should be gone in 12 months, assuming a 16 percent APR.
If you are on a hardship plan and still can’t pay your bills, call your creditors to see if they’ll extend your forbearance benefits.
You can also consider getting professional financial help from a certified credit counselor. Once you schedule an appointment, the counselor can go over your budget and recommend solutions, such as a debt management plan.
The bottom line
In 2020, millions of consumers took advantage of hardship programs and government relief efforts. Your lender might have hit the “pause” button on monthly payments, waived late fees or otherwise helped you keep your finances afloat.
Although delinquency rates dropped on all types of debts in Experian’s survey, that only tells part of the story. The positive trend may be attributed to relief programs put in place to address the COVID-19 pandemic. But once these programs expire, you might need to start making payments again. If you have debt, make a plan to start paying it off in 2021.