Consumer Debt: What It Is, How It Works, and Pros & Cons


Consumer debt, encompassing credit card debt, student loans, auto loans, mortgages, and payday loans, is a form of personal debt resulting from individual or household consumption. This article explores the nuances of consumer debt, including its types, advantages, disadvantages, and its impact on the economy. We’ll also delve into the concept of the Consumer Leverage Ratio and the issue of predatory lending. Understanding consumer debt is crucial for informed financial decisions.

What is consumer debt?

Consumer debt consists of personal debts that are owed as a result of purchasing goods that are used for individual or household consumption. Credit card debt, student loans, auto loans, mortgages, and payday loans are all examples of consumer debt. These stand in contrast to other debts that are used for investments in running a business or debt incurred through government operations.

Understanding consumer debt

Consumer loans can be extended by a bank, the federal government, and credit unions, and are broken down into two categories: revolving debt and non-revolving debt. Revolving debt is paid down on a monthly basis, such as credit cards, whereas non-revolving debt is the loan of a lump sum up front with fixed payments over a defined term. Non-revolving credit usually includes auto loans and school loans.

Advantages and disadvantages of consumer debt

Consumer debt is considered a financially suboptimal means of financing because the interest rates charged on the debt, such as credit card balances, are extremely high when compared to mortgage interest rates. Furthermore, the items purchased typically do not provide a necessary utility and do not appreciate in value, which might justify taking on that debt.

An opposite view is that consumer debt results in increased consumer spending and production, thereby growing the economy, and achieves a smoothing of consumption. For example, people borrow at earlier stages in their lives for education and housing, and then pay down that debt later in life when they are earning higher incomes.

Regardless of the pros and cons, consumer debt in the United States is on the rise due to the ease of obtaining financing matched with the high level of interest rates. As of September 2020, consumer debt was $4.16 trillion, with $3.17 trillion in non-revolving debt and $988.6 billion of revolving debt.

If not managed properly, consumer debt can be financially crushing and adversely impact an individual’s credit score, hindering their ability to borrow in the future.

The consumer leverage ratio

The consumer leverage ratio (CLR) measures the amount of debt that the average American consumer holds, compared with their disposable income. The formula is as follows:

Total household debt is derived from the Federal Reserve’s report, while disposable personal income is reported by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

The CLR has been used as a litmus test for the health of the U.S. economy, along with other indicators, such as the stock market, inventory levels, and the unemployment rate.

On an individual level, the consumer leverage ratio is advised to be between 10% and 20% of an individual’s take-home pay. Above 20% is an indicator of urgent debt problems.

Consumer debt and predatory lending

Consumer debt is often associated with predatory lending, broadly defined by the FDIC as “imposing unfair and abusive loan terms on borrowers.”

Predatory lending often targets groups with less access to and understanding of more traditional forms of financing. Predatory lenders can charge unreasonably high interest rates and require significant collateral in the likely event a borrower defaults.

Pros and Cons of Consumer Debt

Here is a list of the benefits and drawbacks of consumer debt to consider.

  • Access to Immediate Purchases: Consumer debt allows individuals to make essential and desired purchases, such as homes, cars, and education, even if they don’t have the funds upfront.
  • Smoothing Consumption: It enables consumers to spread the cost of significant expenses over time, reducing the financial burden and making these purchases more manageable.
  • Economic Growth: Consumer spending driven by debt can stimulate economic growth, create jobs, and boost production in various industries.
  • Investment in Human Capital: Loans for education can be seen as an investment in one’s future earning potential and overall economic well-being.
  • High-Interest Rates: Many forms of consumer debt, such as credit cards, come with significantly higher interest rates compared to other types of loans, resulting in substantial interest payments.
  • Financial Stress: Excessive consumer debt can lead to financial stress, making it challenging to meet monthly obligations, save for the future, or invest in other opportunities.
  • Risk of Default: When consumers are unable to manage their debt, it can lead to defaults, affecting their credit score and financial stability.
  • Depreciating Assets: Some consumer purchases, like vehicles, lose value over time, making it harder to justify taking on debt for items that don’t appreciate in value.

Frequently asked questions

What are the most common forms of consumer debt?

The most common forms of consumer debt include credit card debt, student loans, auto loans, mortgages, and payday loans.

How does consumer debt impact my credit score?

If not managed responsibly, consumer debt can negatively impact your credit score, making it harder to secure future loans or credit with favorable terms.

What is the consumer leverage ratio (CLR) and why is it important?

The CLR measures the amount of debt an average consumer holds compared to their disposable income. It’s important because it can indicate the overall financial health of the economy.

Is there a recommended strategy for managing consumer debt?

Yes, there are several strategies for managing consumer debt effectively. These include creating a budget, prioritizing high-interest debts, making consistent payments, and considering debt consolidation or refinancing options. It’s essential to assess your financial situation and choose a strategy that aligns with your goals and resources.

What steps should I take if I find myself struggling with consumer debt?

If you’re facing challenges with consumer debt, it’s crucial to take action promptly. Start by contacting your creditors to discuss repayment options, and consider seeking advice from a certified credit counselor. Budgeting, reducing unnecessary expenses, and exploring debt relief programs are also viable steps to regain control of your finances.

Can consumer debt affect my ability to buy a home or a car?

Yes, consumer debt can impact your ability to secure loans for significant purchases like a home or a car. Lenders typically assess your debt-to-income ratio, which includes your existing consumer debt, to determine your creditworthiness. High levels of consumer debt may result in higher interest rates or difficulty obtaining loan approval.

Are there any legal protections against predatory lending?

Yes, there are legal protections against predatory lending practices. Regulations vary by country and region, but many governments have implemented laws to safeguard consumers from unfair lending practices. It’s essential to familiarize yourself with your local consumer protection laws and report any suspicious or abusive lending behavior to the appropriate authorities.

How can I avoid falling into the cycle of payday loans and high-interest credit card debt?

Avoiding the cycle of payday loans and high-interest credit card debt requires careful financial planning. Start by building an emergency fund to cover unexpected expenses, which can reduce the need for payday loans. Additionally, use credit cards responsibly by paying your balance in full each month to avoid accumulating high-interest debt. Educate yourself about financial literacy to make informed decisions and avoid debt traps.

Key takeaways

    • Consumer debt is personal debt resulting from purchases for individual or household consumption.
    • It can be segmented into revolving and non-revolving debt.
    • Revolving debt is paid monthly and may have variable rates; non-revolving debt is paid as a fixed rate.
    • Consumer debt is considered suboptimal financing due to high interest rates.
    • The Consumer Leverage Ratio (CLR) tracks the aggregate level of consumer debt in a country.
View article sources
  1. Definition: consumer debt – Cornell Law School
  2. The Consumer Debt Crisis and the Reinforcement – University of Maine School of Law
  3. Federal Reserve Board – Consumer Credit – Federal Reserve System
  4. Debt collection – Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
  5. Understanding Debt – SuperMoney
  6. Consumer Debt Help Association Reviews (2023) – SuperMoney