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Consumers Taking on More Debt, More Cautiously

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The slowly improving economy has had a few starts and stops in recent months, but that hasn’t dissuaded consumers from once again taking on more debt. However, according to new data, they are being more careful in doing so.

The latest data suggests that the total amount owed across all loan types by consumers climbed to $11.4 trillion in March, and while that was down from the $12.7 trillion seen during the third quarter of 2008, it was up considerably from more recent figures, according to a report from MarketWatch. Those latest debt totals come out to about $96,000 in debt for the average American household.

But at the same time, riskier types of borrowing, such as that on credit cards, has dipped considerably, the report said. Credit card balances fell significantly during and immediately following the economic downturn, and while debt totals on these accounts have been growing nationwide in recent months, they are still well below pre-recession levels. The end of the first quarter saw consumer credit card debt dip to just $679 billion, compared with $837 billion in the same period of 2008.

This trend isn’t likely to last forever, though, as lenders continue to broaden lending qualifications to include more consumers with subprime credit ratings, the report said. This process has already begun, and could pay dividends in the coming months.

“The credit card issuers have been tightening credit through the recession, making it more expensive and less available,” Cristian deRitis, a director at Moody’s Analytics, told the site. “[Consumer credit card debt] will slowly grow through the end of this year and in the next year.”

But at the same time, as consumers reigned in many types of borrowing, their appetite or necessity for tapping student loans grew considerably, the report said. Outstanding education financing balances totaled $904 billion in the first quarter of the year, compared with just $506 billion in the same three-month period during 2007.

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Part of the problem with this type of financing is that consumers feel they need it to improve their employment chances and, because of financial difficulties during the recession, many were forced to rely more heavily on these loans to pay their tuition and other school related-costs. Many experts note that student loan debt can total tens of thousands of dollars by the time a young adult graduates from school, in addition to whatever other credit they may have.

Image: antwerpenR, via Flickr

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