Roughly 2 in 5 Americans would rather pack on debt than pounds, a new Credit Karma survey finds

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If the January barrage of self-help headlines and discounted gym memberships is any indication, each new year marks a collective focus on shedding pounds and keeping them off.

While improving your health is nothing to take lightly, there’s a far quieter battle of the bulge unfolding across America — our relationship with debt. Consumer debt has now reached a historic peak of $12.96 trillion, with balances ticking higher across mortgages, auto loans, credit cards and student loans.

Credit Karma decided to ask Americans directly: What’s more important to you in 2018, the waistline or the wallet?

Turns out, it’s complicated.

Nearly 2 in 5 Americans — 38 percent — would be willing to take on debt (or additional debt) to avoid gaining just 10 pounds. And how much debt was 10 extra pounds worth? The average figure shared was $1,299, meaning Americans would rather see their balances exceed a grand than see one-hundredth of that on the scales.

Further, nearly half of Americans (49 percent) have the goal to eat more healthfully in 2018, but fewer plan to spend less/save more (44 percent) or pay down debt (37 percent).

The data comes from a December 2017 survey conducted online by Harris Poll on behalf of Credit Karma among 2,146 U.S. adults ages 18+, of whom 1,637 currently have debt.

Key takeaways

  • Gender makes a difference. Men would be willing to take on nearly three times as much debt/additional debt, on average, than women to avoid gaining 10 pounds ($1,973 vs. $692). Women are more likely than men to say they want to spend less/save more in 2018 (49 percent vs. 38 percent).
  • Pennies over pleasure. About 1 in 5 Americans (19 percent) would be willing to give up sex for a year to get rid of all of their current debt. This jumps to 1 in 4 (25 percent) among those who currently have debt. Women are more likely than men to say they’d be willing to give up sex for a year to make their current debt disappear (24 percent vs. 13 percent).
  • Not all about vanity. Over half of Americans (56 percent) would be willing to take on additional weight in order to avoid gaining $1,000 of debt. The average maximum amount of weight Americans would be willing to put on rather than gain $1,000 of debt is 10 pounds.
  • Millennials and money. At 57 percent, millennials (ages 18-34) are most likely to say they want to spend less/save more in 2018 compared with 48 percent of Gen Xers (ages 35-54) and 31 percent of baby boomers (ages 55+).

“Using the new year as motivation toward better health is great. And this survey is a fantastic reminder the same energy can be applied toward your finances,” says Bethy Hardeman, chief consumer advocate for Credit Karma.

Keeping debt at bay

Here’s more on the mental and physical trade-offs people might make to keep debt at bay:

  • Nearly half of Americans (45 percent) say they’d be willing to clean the bathroom weekly for a year in order to make all of their current debt disappear.
  • Close to 2 in 5 Americans (38 percent) say they’d be willing to exercise six times a week for a year to eliminate their current debt.
  • About one-third (32 percent each) would be willing to give up alcohol or chocolate for a year to erase their current debt.

And willingness to delete debt can vary widely by generation. Millennials and Gen Xers are more likely than baby boomers to say they’d be willing to do each of the following for a year to erase all of their current debt:

  Millennials Generation X Baby Boomers
Clean the bathroom weekly 48% 52% 36%
Exercise six times a week 45% 45% 27%
Give up alcohol 37% 40% 23%
Give up chocolate 34% 38% 25%

How much debt do we have exactly?

According to our survey, Americans reported $3,158 in debt, on average, on their credit card or cards. This echoes an earlier look at Federal Reserve data and U.S. population figures, where we found the average credit card debt in America stands at roughly $4,000 per cardholder.

We also found that Generation X is feeling the pinch of credit card debt more than other generations. Here’s more from our survey:

  • Nearly 1 in 5 Americans (17 percent) currently have $5,000 or more in credit card debt, in total, and 1 in 10 (10 percent) have $10,000 or more.
  • Gen Xers currently have the most credit card debt, on average, compared with baby boomers and millennials ($4,404 vs. $2,917 and $1,942, respectively).
  • Gen Xers are most likely to say they currently have $5,000 or more in credit card debt, in total (22 percent vs. 16 percent of baby boomers and 10 percent of millennials).
  • Gen Xers are about twice as likely as baby boomers and millennials to currently have $10,000 or more in credit card debt, in total (14 percent vs. 8 percent and 6 percent, respectively).

4 ways to get in control of your debt

The good news is anyone can take concrete steps toward a more secure financial future in 2018, no matter your income or level of debt.

1. Start small

Focus on small but consistent changes, such as paying more than just the minimum on any credit card balance. Any additional amount — even one dollar — will help you pay down your debt faster.

For example, if you have a $3,000 balance at 15 percent interest and make a minimum monthly payment of $68, it would take you five years and five months to pay it off, assuming you didn’t add anything to the debt. The total amount paid would be $4,389.

Add $25 more to the payment each month? You’d knock it out two years faster and pay $3,865, saving $524 in interest.

2. Get help from friends and family

Don’t be shy about communicating your 2018 financial goals to family and friends. There’s no shame in seeking a more stable future.

Take the lead in suggesting outings and adventures with little or no cost. You might be surprised at how much more fun — and inexpensive — a leisurely potluck brunch at home with friends can be versus waiting for an overpriced omelet.

If you suspect those closest to you might not be supportive, find a group of like-minded people online. Some great places to start: Credit Karma’s community forum, Reddit’s Personal Finance community and You Need A Budget’s support forum.

3. Avoid extremes

You’ll hear this a lot from nutrition experts — going from overindulgence to deprivation overnight is a recipe for disaster. So don’t spend January living like a monk only to quit in frustration in February.

Focus on eliminating the easy stuff first, like subscriptions you rarely use, or by getting more organized. If you’re a chronic bill forgetter, switch to autopay. Late fees are often avoidable and can quickly add up.

4. Build in accountability

If you find yourself consistently surprised by non-emergency expenses, you need to revamp your monthly budget (and yes, you do need a budget!). All you really need is a simple Excel document or Google Sheet.

In addition to regular expenses such as rent or car payments, make monthly allotments to cover birthday gifts, haircuts, oil changes, vacations, summer camps, emergency savings and bills such as car insurance, garbage service or home heating oil that might come every other month or every six months.


Methodology

This survey was conducted online within the United States by Harris Poll on behalf of Credit Karma from December 14-18, 2017, among 2,146 U.S. adults ages 18 and older, among whom 1,637 currently have debt. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables, please contact Emily Donohue at emily.donohue@creditkarma.com.

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