Americans are feeling more grim about their debt.
Nearly one in five consumers with loans said they think they will never be able to finish paying off their debt, according to survey released Wednesday by CreditCards.com. That is double the nine percent who said they felt that way last year.
The card comparison Web site polled more than 1,000 people in early December and asked them what age they expected to be debt free, after factoring all of their consumer debt, including credit card bills, car loans, student loans and other types of loans like mortgages. On average, people said they didn’t expect to be done paying off those loans until they were 53.
But the doubling of the share of people who say they will never be debt free is a sign that people are growing more pessimistic about their ability to pay what they owe, says Matt Schulz, a senior industry analyst for CreditCards.com. That could be a reflection of how people feel about the economy, he says. Many people are struggling to pay down student loans. And even people who are working may feel stuck in low paying jobs or in jobs that don’t match their skills.
“While unemployment is down, you still have people who are either underemployed or have been looking for a long time,” Schulz says. “Wages haven’t increased a whole lot over time.”
People who made less money were more likely to feel like their struggle with debt would be endless. Some 20 percent of people who made less than $30,000 a year said they felt they would never be debt free, compared to 15 percent of people who made $75,000 and up.
Optimism about paying off debt also fell with age. Even though millennials are worried about student loan debt, they were less likely than older groups to say that they would never be debt free. That might be because they feel they have time on their side, Schulz says.
In contrast, an older person taking out student loans to pay for a child or grandchild’s college education may feel like they won’t get to pay the debt off in their lifetimes. “It only makes sense that if you’re 65 and have a bunch of debt you’re probably thinking that you may end up outliving that debt,” Schulz says.
Some people may expect that they’ll be paying off debt for a while simply because some loans just take a long time to pay down. Mortgages are commonly issued as 30-year loans. People who consolidate their student loans also expect to be paying them for decades. And people are even stretching their auto loans.
Still, other studies show that more people are carrying debt into their older years. Consumers 60 and up saw their average debt loads increase for all types of loans between 2005 and 2014, including student loans, according to a study released by TransUnion in the fall. And more seniors are carrying student loan debt into retirement and having their Social Security wages garnished to cover the debt, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office released earlier this year.
Whatever the timeline, Schulz says people shouldn’t give up on paying off their loans. People with high interest rates on their credit cards may be able to save money by applying for a card with a lower rate and then transferring the balance, he says. Others can call their credit card issuers and ask for a lower interest rate — a strategy that often works but that people rarely try.