Here’s How Much Debt Americans Really Have

New survey on national debt finds out which types of debt burden Americans the most.


Many Americans struggle with debt. In fact, it’s the biggest source of financial stress in the U.S., found in an August survey.

But to find out exactly which type of debt is weighing down Americans the most, GOBankingRates surveyed nearly 3,000 adults across the U.S. and asked what their largest source of current debt is — mortgage, credit card, student loan or medical debt. We also asked respondents to provide the dollar amount of each type of debt they have, including auto loan debt.

Shockingly, the survey found that a majority of respondents (51 percent) are currently not in debt — at least, that’s what they claim. Perhaps this is because some respondents are overlooking certain types of debt they might have, such as small balance accounts or loans in deferment, said Bruce McClary, vice president of public relations & external affairs for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC).

“It’s sometimes easy to forget about a loan if it is in a deferred payment plan, like some of the retail finance offers that let people skip the first six payments,” he said. “The same is true for situations where you may have a debt in your name, but someone else is managing the payments.” This could especially be the case with student loans among younger adults.

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But among those who did say they are in debt, mortgages are the biggest culprit, followed by student loan debt. The survey also found that a greater percentage of men than women have debt — 52 percent versus 48 percent. Older adults ages 65 and up are least likely to have debt while those ages 35 to 44 are the most likely to be carrying debt. And, adults earning $100,000 to $149,999 are more likely to have debt than respondents in any other income bracket.

Although a majority of survey respondents report having no debt, here’s a deeper look into the types of debt many Americans are dealing with — as well as tips on how to get out of debt and find debt relief assistance.

U.S. household debt infographic

Mortgages Are the Biggest Source of Debt for Americans

Considering that the most recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show that housing costs are the biggest component of household spending, it’s not surprising that loans taken out to buy homes are the biggest source of debt for those surveyed by GOBankingRates. About 20 percent of all respondents named mortgages as their biggest source of debt.

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The survey also found:

  • The median mortgage debt among those surveyed is $59,500.
  • Adults ages 35 to 44 are the most likely to have mortgage loan debt with 51% reporting they have mortgages.
  • Respondents in this age group also have the highest median mortgage debt at $100,000.
  • A greater percentage of men than women have mortgage debt — 41% versus 36%.
  • But, women owe a higher median amount — $74,000 versus $60,000.
  • A greater percentage of adults earning $100,000 to $149,999 have mortgage loan debt than any other income bracket.
  • This group also owes the highest median amount — $150,000.

Mortgage Payoff Tips to Get Out of Debt

Refinancing your mortgage can be a smart way to reduce the amount of interest you’re paying on your debt and accelerate your mortgage payoff plan. But if you don’t have enough equity in your home to refinance, you might have to look for other ways to deal with this source of debt. For example, consider renting out a room in your house or getting a second job to generate extra income to tackle your mortgage debt.

“As a last resort, sell your place and buy a home you really can afford or rent,” said Neal Frankle, a certified financial planner and managing editor of

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students sitting around looking despondent

Student Loans Are the Biggest Source of Debt for Millennials

Student loan debt is the biggest source of debt for those ages 18 to 34 and the second-biggest source of debt among all survey respondents. When it comes to student loan debt, the GOBankingRates survey also found:

  • The median amount owed by those who have it is $9,100.
  • Among 18- to 24-year-old millennials, 36% have student loan debt — and the median amount owed is $10,000.
  • More than 40% of older millennials ages 25 to 34 have student loan debt —  they owe a median amount of $14,000.
  • A smaller percentage of young Gen Xers ages 35 to 44 have student loan debt, but the median amount they owe is the highest of those surveyed at $15,000.
  • About an equal percentage of men and women have student loan debt.
  • But women have almost twice as much student loan debt — $15,000 versus a median of $8,000 owed by men.
  • Those earning $150,000 and up have the highest student loan debt burden with a median of $60,000 owed.

Find Out: 10 Ways to Pay Off Your Student Loans in One Year

Ways to Avoid and Get Out of Student Loan Debt

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If you or your child are heading to college soon, there are ways to graduate debt-free — or, at least, avoid racking up too much student loan debt.

“It may feel like student loans are your only option, especially when you’re really sold on a particular school,” said Kristina Ellis, author of “How to Graduate Debt-Free.” “But before signing on the dotted line, make sure you’ve assessed every alternative.”

For starters, consider attending a more affordable school or starting at a community college. Then, transfer to a four-year school, she said. Apply for scholarships throughout college — not just before your freshman year. And, get a part-time job to help cover costs.

If student loans are inevitable, take only the courses you need to meet your major and graduation requirements so you can graduate in four years.

“Each additional year could create a need for more loans,” said Ellis. “Don’t let a lack of planning lead to thousands of dollars in additional debt.” Also, don’t borrow more than you need to fund expenses beyond college costs, such as trips and summer living costs.

For those graduating with student loan debt, Ellis recommended making more than the minimum monthly payment, if possible, to get out of debt quicker. Or, simplify and reduce your student loan obligations by consolidating into a single loan with a lower interest rate.

“There’s still a lot to consider when refinancing student loans, including terms, fixed versus variable rates and fees,” she said. “However, the right refinance strategy can yield a great amount of savings.”

person swiping credit card

Higher-Income Adults Have More Credit Card Debt

Out of all of the survey respondents, nearly 10 percent said their biggest source of debt is credit card debt. Of those who have credit card debt, the median amount is $2,000. Also:

  • Nearly half of respondents earning $100,000 to $149,999 have credit card debt — the highest percentage of all income brackets.
  • The median amount respondents earning $100,000 to $149,999 owe is $6,944.
  • However, those earning $150,000 and up actually owe a median amount of $11,750.

Leslie H. Tayne, a financial attorney and author of “Life and Debt,” said it’s not surprising that higher-income people have more debt.

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“The more income you have, the more you spend,” she said. This is something she sees among her clients who use credit to support their expensive lifestyles. In fact, Americans of all income brackets have come to rely more and more on credit because it’s easy to get, and they have adopted a buy-now-pay-later mindset, said Tayne.

“We’ve gotten away from buying things we can afford to buying things we can’t afford by making monthly payments,” she said. However, credit cards should only be used to make purchases you know you can pay off every month.

How to Get Rid of Credit Card Debt Fast

If you’re trying to get out of debt fast, Tayne recommended tackling the balance on your highest-interest rate card first.

“Once you see your debt go down, you will get motivated to pay off the rest,” she said. “This might mean cutting some of your non-essential expenses such as date night, eating out for lunch and even movie channels to help you reach your financial goal.”

Also, call your card issuer to negotiate a lower interest rate to reduce the total amount you’ll have to pay over time.

“Let them know you are a loyal customer, and the last thing you want to do is go with another provider,” said Tayne. “If this fails on the first try, persistence is key.”

Find Out: How to Get Out of Debt in 6 Easy Ways

doctor with patient's medical records

Lower-Income Adults Have the Most Medical Debt

The GOBankingRates survey found just a little under 6 percent of all respondents consider medical debt their biggest source of debt. And, those who have medical debt owe a median amount of $600.

Here are some of the other findings the survey found regarding medical debt:

  • Respondents earning $0 to $24,999 have the highest median medical debt amount at $1,500.
  • This income group also has the highest percentage of respondents with medical debt — 27%.
  • Women owe twice as much as men for medical expenses — $1,000 versus $500.
  • Those ages 35 to 44 have the most medical debt with a median of $1,367 owed.

Easy Ways to Prevent and Get Medical Debt Relief

To avoid racking up medical debt, Tayne recommended creating an emergency fund for medical expenses. Set up automatic transfers from your checking account to a savings account each month so the money comes out before you have a chance to spend it.

If you’re struggling to pay your medical debt and need debt relief, let your healthcare providers and creditors know, added Tayne. They might work with you to set up a payment plan you can afford. Or, reach out to a non-profit credit counseling agency to get help managing your debt, she said. You can find certified counselors at, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling website.

couple buying car

Auto Loan Debt Is Highest Among High-Income Earners

A majority of survey respondents (69 percent) report having zero auto loan debt. Of those who do reporting having auto loan debt, however, the median amount owed is $8,000. Also interesting:

  • Those who have auto loan debt and earn at least $150,000 have the highest median auto loan debt by far — $40,000.
  • But, just 17% of respondents earning $150,000 and up have auto debt, which is the smallest percentage of any income group.
  • The lowest income bracket ($0 to $24,999) has the lowest median auto loan debt amount of $5,750, and 25% have this type of debt.
  • Adults ages 45 to 54 are most likely to have auto loan debt with 37% reporting that they owe money on a car.
  • Women have more auto loan debt than men — the median amount for women is $10,000 versus $8,000 for men.

How to Get Auto Loan Debt Help

If you need auto loan debt help, you might be able to refinance with a bank at a lower interest rate. “If that doesn’t work, your only option is to find a way to earn more so you will have the scratch to make the payments,” said Frankle.

However, if your auto loan debt — or any type of debt, for that matter — is too much to handle, ask yourself what you could have done to avoid this problem. Often, making smarter choices with your finances is the key to having no debt.

“Sometimes, circumstances are beyond our control. But more often than not, getting into debt we can’t afford is a choice,” said Frankle. “Get to the bottom of why you are where you are, and make a commitment to yourself to never repeat the mistake.”

See More Survey Results: The Biggest Source of Debt for Americans in Every State

Methodology: This survey posed the question, “Of the following, which is the largest source of your current debt?” to 2,780 people with the possible answer choices: 1) mortgage loan debt, 2) credit card debt, 3) student loan debt, 4) medical debt and 5) I am not in debt. Then, respondents were asked to answer the following questions: 

  • How much mortgage loan debt do you currently have?
  • How much credit card debt do you currently have?
  • How much student loan debt do you currently have?
  • How much medical debt do you currently have?
  • How much auto loan debt do you currently have?

Responses were collected through a Google Consumer Survey conducted from Sept.16, 2016, to Sept. 18, 2016, and responses are representative of the U.S. online population. The survey has a 2.6 percent margin of error.

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About the Author

Cameron Huddleston

Cameron Huddleston is an award-winning journalist with more than 18 years of experience writing about personal finance. Her work has appeared in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, Business Insider, Chicago Tribune, Fortune, MSN, USA Today and many more print and online publications. She also is the author of Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk: How to Have Essential Conversations With Your Parents About Their Finances.

U.S. News & World Report named her one of the top personal finance experts to follow on Twitter, and AOL Daily Finance named her one of the top 20 personal finance influencers to follow on Twitter. She has appeared on CNBC, CNN, MSNBC and “Fox & Friends” and has been a guest on ABC News Radio, Wall Street Journal Radio, NPR, WTOP in Washington, D.C., KGO in San Francisco and other personal finance radio shows nationwide. She also has been interviewed and quoted as an expert in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Forbes, MarketWatch and more.

She has an MA in economic journalism from American University and BA in journalism and Russian studies from Washington & Lee University.

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Here’s How Much Debt Americans Really Have
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