What's Causing Your Debt—and Why You Should Get It Under Control

Americans spend trillions of dollars on these five things each year.

can't stop worrying about debt

Updated on July 24, 2023.

Maybe your American Dream involves a college education, or a safe and comfortable home for your family. Perhaps you’d like enough cash to afford monthly expenses, and even a little bit left over to put into savings or towards a vacation. 

For many of us, however, achieving an American Dream means taking on debt. Investing in education or a home is a great way to build personal and financial equity, of course, but if you rack up too much debt doing so, you can put your finances, property, and even your health at risk.

The sources of Americans’ debt

So, what’s causing our debt? There are a few well-known sources, like college loans, but some other common expenses might surprise you.

Your home. Housing is the largest monthly expense for many people, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. Investing in a home is a great way to build financial equity. But if you can’t afford your mortgage, home insurance, and taxes each month, you can hurt your credit score and risk losing your home, too. 

As a rule of thumb—whether you own or rent—try to spend no more than 30 percent of your income on housing. This should leave you with cash for other expenses, like food, utilities, transportation, childcare, and savings for your emergency fund at the end of each month.

Your education (or your kids’). A 2020 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Current Population Survey showed that the weekly median earnings for workers with a high school diploma was $781. In contrast, for those with a bachelor’s degree it was $1,305. And over the long term, these kinds of differences add up. Research by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) has shown that on average, those with college degrees will earn approximately $1.2 million more over their lifetime than those without a college degree. 

Many graduates, however, have to take out student loans to earn those degrees. That’s why it’s so important to consider how borrowing will affect future finances—for parents saving up for their kids’ college funds and for students taking on their own loans. 

Before taking out a loan, be sure to assess the type of school you’ll be paying for (public vs. private) and the planned area of study (a high-paying degree vs. a lower-paying degree). These two factors will help you determine how much student loan debt is just too much, and whether you’ll be able to pay it back comfortably.

Your medical expenses. Even for those with health insurance, planned and unplanned medical expenses can be expensive—and costs are climbing. In fact, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the national spending on healthcare reached $4.3 trillion in 2021, or about $12,914 per person in the U.S. Plus, benefit coverage and the cost of care can be confusing or unclear to many people—especially in emergency situations—resulting in substantial, unplanned expenses. 

So, how should you handle a major medical bill? Having an “emergency fund,” or at least three to six months’ worth of living expenses saved, can help offset surprise medical costs. Alternately, many hospitals and healthcare providers’ (HCP) offices will work with you to develop a monthly payment plan based on your income.

Your kids. According to the most recent report put out in 2017 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, raising a child in the U.S. costs a middle class family approximately $233,000 (in 2015 dollars), not including the price of college. Between housing, food, education, childcare, and other everyday expenses, providing the basics can add up. Unexpected expenses or having multiple children can greatly raise that figure. 

The solution? You can try to develop a family plan and stick to it, but of course, not every addition to your family is planned. That’s why it’s important to have a solid savings base and adhere to your monthly budget.

Your home improvements. One industry survey found that on average, Americans spent over $8,400 in 2022 on home improvements. They're a source of debt for Americans simply because it’s easier and more affordable to improve and repair current housing than it is to find new housing all together. Unexpected expenses like a broken air conditioning unit or hot water heater can add to that cost. Even if substantial home improvements aren’t in your short-term (or even long-term) financial plans, setting aside a few dollars each month towards them can help offset the costs.

Debt doesn’t just hurt your credit score

You may know taking on too much debt can result in a lower credit score, home foreclosures, and the repossession of cars and other belongings. But did you know poor finances can affect your health, too?

According to a 2022 survey by the American Psychological Association (APA), 66 percent of Americans feel stressed about money. Financial concerns like excess debt can affect one’s general health by:

  • Increasing daily stress: Not only can everyday stress contribute to depression and anxiety, but it’s also been linked to cardiovascular issues (such as heart attack, stroke, and high blood pressure), as well as problems with the gastrointestinal, endocrine, respiratory, nervous, and reproductive systems.
  • Affecting treatment for health issues: A 2022 Gallup study found that 26 percent of Americans report delaying or avoiding medical care or purchasing prescription drugs simply because they could not afford it. Because patients aren’t seeing their providers, health conditions may be going untreated—or undetected entirely.
  • Affecting relationships: Money is a common cause of conflict in relationships, and in a 2021 survey, 73 percent of Americans reported it being a source of tension. Conflict in a relationship can increase stress levels, which may strain the cardiovascular, nervous, digestive, and endocrine systems.

The bottom line? Avoiding too much debt can set you up for a solid financial future—and help protect your mental, emotional, and physical health. The key is to develop an attainable, sustainable financial plan that can help you keep your money goals on track.

Article sources open article sources

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Consumer Expenditures—2021. Released September 8, 2022.
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Archives: Glossary of Terms to Affordable Housing. Content archived August 18, 2011. 
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Education pays, 2020. June 2021.
Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. How does a college degree improve graduates’ employment and earnings potential? Accessed July 2023.
United States Census Bureau. Press Release: More Than 19 Million Renters Burdened by Housing Costs. December 8, 2022.
Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. Relationship Intimacy Being Crushed by Financial Tension: AICPA Survey. 2022. 
Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. National Health Expenditure (NHE) Data Fact Sheet: Historical NHE, 2021. Page last updated December 14, 2022.
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. An essential guide to building an emergency fund. Accessed on February 3, 2023. 
Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). Start an Emergency Fund. Accessed on February 3, 2023. 
United States Department of Agriculture: Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. Expenditures on Children by Families, 2015. Page last revised March 2017. 
Angi. The State of Home Spending in 2022. Accessed on February 3, 2023. 
American Psychological Association. Stress In America October 2022 Topline Data. October 2022.
American Psychological Association: Stress effects on the body. November 1, 2018. 
Gallup. Four in 10 Americans Cut Spending to Cover Healthcare Costs. August 4, 2022.

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