Many companies featured on Money advertise with us. Opinions are our own, but compensation and
in-depth research may determine where and how companies appear. Learn more about how we make money.

Published: Feb 07, 2024 5 min read
Older woman in her house, looking through paperwork
Getty Images

Americans have less personal debt than they did before the pandemic, according to data showing the average adult owes a little under $22,000.

Research from financial services company Northwestern Mutual found that excluding mortgages, the average personal debt per individual sat at $21,800 in 2023, significantly lower than the $29,800 recorded in 2019.

At the same time, Americans have wildly different experiences with their debt: While more than a third of Americans said they’re carrying their highest level of debt ever, an even greater share reported the opposite. The latest New York Federal Reserve data also shows that rising credit card debt and auto loans helped push U.S. household debt to new records in the fourth quarter of 2023.

Ads by Money. We may be compensated if you click this ad.AdAds by Money disclaimer
If you owe over $15,000 in debt, a Debt Relief Program may be able to help get you back on your feet more quickly.
Select your state to begin applying for Accredited Debt Relief's program.
HawaiiAlaskaFloridaSouth CarolinaGeorgiaAlabamaNorth CarolinaTennesseeRIRhode IslandCTConnecticutMAMassachusettsMaineNHNew HampshireVTVermontNew YorkNJNew JerseyDEDelawareMDMarylandWest VirginiaOhioMichiganArizonaNevadaUtahColoradoNew MexicoSouth DakotaIowaIndianaIllinoisMinnesotaWisconsinMissouriLouisianaVirginiaDCWashington DCIdahoCaliforniaNorth DakotaWashingtonOregonMontanaWyomingNebraskaKansasOklahomaPennsylvaniaKentuckyMississippiArkansasTexas
Get Started

Average debt levels

Northwestern Mutual and the Harris Poll interviewed 2,740 U.S. adults online between mid-February and early March of 2023. Here are some of the findings:

  • Despite persistently high inflation in recent times, the study showed average personal debt among U.S. adults, not including mortgages, has dropped steadily over the past four years.
  • The average American in 2023 carried $21,800 in personal debt (excluding mortgages), a whopping $8,000 less than what Northwestern Mutual recorded in 2019.
  • Personal debt for many Americans is decreasing: 43% percent said they have the lowest or close to the lowest debt they’ve ever carried.
  • However, 35% of Americans reported that they’re in the most debt of their lives. New York Fed data shows that U.S. household debt swelled to $17.5 trillion last quarter, with credit card balances making up about $1.13 trillion of it — a new high for credit card debt.
  • Unsurprisingly, younger generations struggle the most with student loan debt, the Northwestern Mutual study found: 5% of survey participants overall said personal education loans were their top source of debt. That percentage increases to 17% for Gen Z and 10% for millennials.
  • Those with personal debt said on average that 30% of their monthly income goes to paying it off.
  • Nearly half (49%) of survey respondents said they expect to pay off their debt within one to five years, while 39% expect it to take longer — perhaps even a lifetime.

Top sources of personal debt

Credit cards are the main source of debt for U.S. adults, accounting for more than double any other source cited by survey respondents.

Ads by Money. We may be compensated if you click this ad.AdAds by Money disclaimer
Debt Relief won't fix all your debt problems, but can be a good option for some consumers
If you owe $15,000 or more in debt, Accredited can help you lessen the amount you owe and make managing your debt easier.
Get Started

Progress on paying off debt

Americans have been making consistent progress when it comes to paying off their debts, according to the survey, even reducing what they owe over the course of a period of historic inflation. While the report didn't explore how Americans are paying down debt, the data shows the average debt per individual declined the most (by $6,475) between 2019 and 2021. By comparison, debt per individual dropped by $1,525 between 2021 and 2023.

During those early pandemic years, many workers grew their savings and eliminated debt by spending less money, working remotely and stashing away their stimulus checks. In surveys, many people say they used their stimulus checks for savings or paying off debt.

Even though the report suggests Americans are reducing their debt overall, that doesn’t mean everyone’s circumstances are alike, as shown by the survey’s divide between those who say they owe the most or least debt ever.

In fact, U.S. household debt grew by $16 billion between April and June of 2023, according to the New York Fed, driven in large part by high interest rates on credit cards: The average credit card APR now sits at more than 20%. Auto loan balances also increased by $20 billion in that time thanks to inflation and high interest rates. Delinquencies related to credit card debt and auto loan debt have been rising recently as well.

Regardless, Americans should do their best to stick to their repayment strategies to continue the trend of consistent declines in debt levels recorded by the Northwestern Mutual study.

"It can be a slippery slope between manageable debt and runaway debt, so it's an important time to remain extra vigilant about planning and spending," Christian Mitchell, chief customer officer at Northwestern Mutual, said in a news release.

More from Money:

5 Ways to Pay Off Debt in 2024

Best Debt Relief Companies

5 Popular Strategies People Are Using to Escape Credit Card Debt

Ads by Money. We may be compensated if you click this ad.Ad
If you owe over $15,000 or more, Accredited can help you get back on your feet!