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The New Generation Gaps in Credit and Debt

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Gen X may be known for quintessential films like The Breakfast Club and for slackers sitting around grunge bars and coffee houses, but now that infamously angst-ridden demographic — ages 30 to 46 — has something new to worry about: Gen X-ers stand as the generation saddled with the highest levels of personal debt.

A new study of credit and debt by Experian revealed that Generation X tops the debt list of its generational peers at $111,121 per person. To compound the misery, Xers also maintain the second lowest credit scores (718). Baby Boomers, on the other hand, have racked up plenty of debt themselves — clocking in on average at $101,951 — but they boast a much higher average credit score (782).

Here’s a quick breakdown from the study:

Average Debt

  • Gen X: $111,121
  • Baby Boomers: $101,951
  • Greatest Generation: $38,043
  • Gen Y: $34,765

Average Credit Score

  • Greatest Generation: 829
  • Baby Boomers: 782
  • Gen X: 718
  • Gen Y: 672

Meanwhile, Gen Y, ages 19 to 29, are only carrying an average of $34,765 in debt, but have the worst average credit score of all (672). Another sour note: Despite the low overall debt totals, Millennials carry much higher-than-average proportions in several categories: 421% higher for student loans, 136% higher for auto loans, and 24% higher in bank cards.

‘Greatest Generation’ Has Great Credit

So what explains the new generation gaps in personal finance? “The study reveals that age groups manage their money and debts quite differently,” says Michele Raneri, vice president of analytics at Experian. “The gap between the highest and lowest average credit scores is vast — 829 for the Greatest Generation to 672 for Generation Y — yet the amount of average debt for these two groups is very close. On the other hand, the baby boomers and Generation X are carrying much higher amounts of debt — about three times more — than the Greatest Generation and Generation Y.”

The study found that each generation’s largest debt contributor is first mortgage, with Gen X’ers first mortgages coming in 5% higher than the other generations. Second mortgages are 5.9% of Gen X’ers debt, while auto loans are 5.8% of their debt.

“The gap between the highest and lowest average credit scores is vast — 829 for the Greatest Generation to 672 for Generation Y — yet the amount of average debt for these two groups is very close.”

Baby boomers tend to be equal to or under the national average in nearly every category with the exception of their second mortgages, which is proportionally 23% higher than the national average.

The big challenge facing Gen Y, meanwhile, centers on low credit scores, which can be attributed to maxed-out credit cards and not paying on time. “Gen Y does have higher than normal late payments,” Raneri says. “They also have higher than normal debt sent to collections even given their short credit histories.” Late payments and maxed out cards, of course, all chip away at a credit score.

The good news for Gen Y: Because they have a short credit history, it can be repaired faster than than older folks. By getting a retail card and paying it off on time, Gen Y’ers can improve their credit scores quickly so that by the time they are trying to get a mortgage they will have the credit score they need to obtain the best rate.

One thing to keep in mind: Credit scores don’t take into account any macroeconomic data, which means that high unemployment rates and a challenging economy are not considered when determining credit score.

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