Americans have $12.25 trillion in debt. That amount is actually 3.3 percent lower than the all-time high set in 2008, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Even so, it’s worth considering how we got to the point of owing trillions of dollars.
Mortgages make up the bulk of household debt — nearly 70 percent, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Student loan balances account for another 10 percent. But that still leaves more than $2 trillion that Americans have borrowed to cover the cost of things other than homes and education.
If you’re in debt, you might be wondering how you ended up owing so much. It might not be obvious. In fact, you might have money habits that you don’t even realize are contributing to your debt. Or, you might be borrowing for what seems like a good reason, but really you’re just hurting your finances. Here are seven surprising ways you might be putting yourself into debt — and tips on how to avoid this financial burden.
1. Failing to Budget
About two-thirds of adults don’t have a budget that tracks their spending, according to a survey conducted for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. If you’re not tracking your expenditures, you could find yourself in debt, said Leslie Tayne, an attorney specializing in debt relief and author of “Life and Debt.”
“If you use the excuse of ‘I don’t know how to budget,’ then sign up for a budgeting tool,” Tayne said. There are free options, including apps such as Mint, Wally and Level Money and software for a fee such as You Need a Budget.
To create a budget, check your bank and credit card statements from the previous three months to see how you’ve been spending your money, Tayne said. Identify essential expenses such as rent, food and utilities, and nonessential expenses such as restaurant meals, shopping excursions and premium cable channels.
Your essential expenses should be listed in your budget first, along with debt repayments. If you don’t have enough of your paycheck left over after covering essentials, you’ll need to cut some non-essential expenses rather than use credit to cover them.
“If you follow a strict budget every month, then there will never be surprise expenses,” said Tayne.
2. Using Credit to Cover Vacation Costs
It’s good to take a break from the daily grind by going on a vacation. But without proper planning, your getaway can get you into debt.
A survey by credit reporting agency Experian found that 68 percent of vacationers spend more than they expected when traveling and often rely on credit cards to make up the difference. Nearly half end up with debt from a vacation.
“I usually recommend planning a vacation a year in advance to avoid financial downfall,” Tayne said. “This way, you can start saving and putting money toward your vacation.”
If you rely on credit instead and make only minimum monthly payments, “then you will end up paying more in interest and could find yourself in deep debt,” she said.
3. Cosigning a Loan
Cosigning a loan for someone who doesn’t have good enough credit or income to qualify on her own might seem like a good way to help out a friend or family member in need. But, it can land you in debt.
“People need to realize that when they cosign for a loan, they are equally responsible for paying it back, even when it is a student loan for another person,” said Deacon Hayes, a financial coach and founder of the WellKeptWallet.com.
He had a client who cosigned a student loan for her daughter. However, the daughter dropped out of school, couldn’t find work and wasn’t able to pay the loan back. So, the mother had to make the monthly payments as the cosigner.
“It is the understanding the daughter will pay back the loan one day, but right now this is causing a financial hardship for her mother,” he said.
If you don’t want to be responsible for someone else’s debt, Hayes said you should avoid cosigning a loan.
4. Not Talking to Your Spouse About Money
If you avoid talking to your spouse or partner about money, you might not know that he or she has debt that could be hurting your joint finances, Tayne said. There are nine community property states — Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin — where debts incurred by one spouse are the responsibility of both spouses, according to Nolo, a publisher of do-it-yourself legal guides. So what your spouse owes, you owe.
In the rest of the states, you’re not responsible for your spouse’s debts if they’re only in his name. However, if you apply for a loan together, your spouse’s high debt level might prevent you from getting approved. Or, you might not be able to reach joint financial goals because your spouse’s debt is weighing you down.
“Whatever the matter may be, it is important you are in the know and on the same financial page as your partner at all times,” Tayne said.
And you need to create a plan together to pay down the debt one spouse owes so it doesn’t hurt the other spouse’s finances or prevent you from achieving financial goals as a couple.
5. Always Saying ‘Yes’ to Your Kids
If you have to rely on credit to pay for what your kids want or cover the costs of numerous extracurricular activities, you’ll end up in debt.
“It can be difficult to say ‘no’ to your children, especially if they are asking you to pay for something positive in their life like a sports tournament or healthy activity,” said Tayne.
Let your children know what fits within your budget and learn to say “no” to them so they’ll stop expecting to get everything they ask for. If they do want to participate in a costly activity or attend a certain camp, you should start setting money aside months in advance so you’ll have enough to cover the cost without relying on credit, said Tayne.
“It is extremely important to be financially prepared,” she said. “You don’t want to be removing your child from the team half-way through the season because you are too deep in debt.”
6. Borrowing to Fund a Business
Borrowing money is one of the most common ways to fund a small business, according to the Small Business Administration. However, if your venture flops, you’ll be left owing money without income from a business to pay off your debt. Hayes said he had a potential client who had borrowed money from her significant other to fund a failing business venture.
“Last time we spoke, she had borrowed close to $1 million, and the business still was struggling to become profitable,” he said.
That’s not to say you should never take a loan to start a business. But, it’s important to recognize that only half of new establishments survive five years or more, according to the SBA.
So, you need to do adequate research and be realistic when making projections for what your business revenues, liabilities and expenses will be, Hayes said.
“This will be helpful to see whether or not the business venture is worth pursuing,” he said. And it might help you avoid taking on debt you can’t repay.
7. Using Credit to Pay Debts
Using balance transfers or getting a debt consolidation loan can be a good way to roll several debt balances into one loan with a single payment and a lower interest rate. But using credit to repay debt can backfire. For example, Hayes said he met with a couple who owed their parents money, so they “repaid” them by charging their father’s medical bills to their credit card.
“They relied on balance transfers for a while until they couldn’t do it anymore and were paying over 15 percent for the medical debt on their credit cards,” he said.
Even if you get a loan with a low interest rate to pay off credit card balances or other debts, you still run the risk of racking up debt on your cards again if you leave the accounts open. A better bet is to make a plan for paying down the debt you have rather than taking on new debt to pay it off.