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Consumer Debt Up 20% – But Are the Numbers On the Up and Up?

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A large US credit counseling firm says, “pay no attention” to news that American consumers are shoring up their debt burdens. On the contrary, personal debt is growing higher. What’s the real story?

The debt counseling firm is American Consumer Credit Counseling (ACCC). The group’s chief operating officer, Steven Trumble, told The Boston Herald on January 30, 2011, that consumer debt is on a serious rise compared to early 2010.

“From what we’re seeing, consumer debt is up 20 percent from last year, and that’s substantial,” said Trumble. He adds that the average credit card debt of his firm’s clients has risen to $23,500, from $19,000 in 2010.

[Resource: Tips for Paying Off Credit Card Debt]

Of course, Trumble is only talking about consumers who come to ACCC for help. That’s not exactly a huge slice of the population, and it largely consists of people who have fallen behind on their debt payments. It doesn’t include the vast majority of Americans who have some control of their debt picture, and don’t require a debt counselor.

That group seems to be doing fairly well, debt-wise. The New York Federal Reserve reports that consumers have shaved about $1 trillion in debt since the third quarter of 2008.

“Consumer debt is declining but only part of the reduction is attributable to defaults and charge-offs,” notes Donghoon Lee, senior economist in the Research and Statistics Group at the New York Fed. “Americans are borrowing less and paying off more debt than in the recent past. This change, which we continue to study carefully, can be a result of both tightening credit standards and voluntary changes in saving behavior.”

[Resource: Do-it-Yourself Debt Reduction]

So it’s all about how you view the statistics. The ACCC, which by all accounts does great work for its clients, is going to tout the numbers that tend to darken the consumer debt picture  — it could well lead to more customers walking through the door.

But the reality is that Americans are doing a better job cutting their debt load – not worse. And that’s good news for consumers, if not for debt counseling firms.

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