More Than 1 in 3 Americans Are In "Holiday Debt"

December 23rd 2014

Alex Mierjeski

If you hadn’t noticed, the holidays are here in full force. But with the warmth and good cheer of the seasonal spirit, there’s an ugly undercurrent that is sadly, often inexorably tied to many popular ideas of a successful holiday season.

Gifts, which of course means buying, buying, buying. According to the National Retail Federation, this year’s holiday sales are expected to bring in about $620 billion, accounting for about 20% of total yearly industry sales.

But according to a new survey, for many Americans, the habit is catching up—and not in a good way. More than a third of all Americans this year, about 38%, have already gone into debt thanks to the gift-buying frenzy that now has come to define the period between Thanksgiving and the New Year. On top of that, a grim 18% say they expect to be burdened with debt until they die.

The study, conducted by, also shows that 43% expect to remain in debt well into their 60s and 70s, and for older Americans, those aged 61 and above, 31% depressingly do not foresee ever getting out from under mortgage and credit card debts.

But for a younger generation, things appear a little more hopeful. The study found that 44% of 18- to 29-year-olds believe that they will pay off their debts by the time they reach 30. Only 5% predicted going to the grave with debt. Even more surprisingly, 57% of that same age group who are already in debt now anticipates successfully paying it off by 30.

But experts caution against false optimism.

“These numbers may be a bit on the optimistic side, but young people tend to answer financial questions very hopefully,” said Christopher Viale, president of Cambridge Credit Counseling of Massachusetts, a nonprofit financial outfit that helps lifting debt burdens.

For Millennials this holiday season, that advice is especially prescient considering the unprecedented amount of student loan debt they shoulder. According to Federal Reserve data, student debt skyrocketed from $550 billion in 2007 to almost $1 trillion in 2013.

What the data signals is a troubling categorical shifting in terms of where people owe money, but one that doesn’t necessarily mean lower numbers overall. Generationally, debt seems to be changing forms, with traditional financial sinkholes like mortgages and car loans being eclipsed by student loans. Older Americans are sadly shown to be falling deeper into dept, with mortgage rates increasing a startling 82% from 2001 to 2011 for people 65 or older, and that’s biting into retirement plans. Their pessimism in the data reflects that. According to the survey, however, Millennials, while in never-before-seen student debt, seem to be overly optimistic, throwing caution to the wind.

And as we launch into the holiday season, debt numbers seem in obvious danger growing larger. Debt is that ever-present specter that hangs in the shadows of millions of Americans’ lives. It thrives during a time when big purchases are justified as qualitative markings of a loving relationship. What many have stressed in light of these new studies is early planning and financial accountability. This means that instead of juggling a wallet-full of credit cards in order to afford all of those gifts, look into creating a holiday budget ahead of time, or transferring existing balances to cards with lower rates.