'Americans saving more, climbing out of debt'

Last modified: 2/20/2011 12:00:00 AM
The recession that just rocked the U.S. economy happened in part because Americans were borrowing and spending more than they could afford. Now, three years after the downturn began, American families are moving faster than many analysts had expected to put their finances in order by paying down debts and boosting their savings.

That bodes well for the recovery. Once Americans get their savings to a comfortable level, they can ramp up their spending all over again - but this time without necessarily going into hock - and give the economy a badly needed lift.

Compared with the summer of 2008, when consumer debt peaked, there is now 7 percent less mortgage debt, 12 percent less in auto loans, and 15 percent less credit card debt outstanding, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Loan payments last year were at their lowest level in a decade.

Meanwhile, Americans are saving at nearly triple the rate they did between 2007 and 2009, setting aside 5.3 percent of their disposable income in December, according to the Commerce Department.

It's not just that Americans are becoming more frugal. Indebtedness is down in part because banks are less inclined to extend loans and have written off billions of dollars in loans that went bad.

But a wide range of government and private data show ordinary Americans, such as Brenda Marshall of Clinton, Md., are playing a large role in improving the economic picture.

'I never would have thought I would be able to get my credit card bills under control, and I'm really proud that I've been able to do it,' said Marshall, 52. She has paid off about $5,000 in credit card debt over the past year and expects to have retired the remaining $3,000 balance on her cards by April.

'The biggest thrill is when you get your statement every month and see that the balance has gone down,' she said.

Marshall has reduced her debt by cutting back on clothing purchases, restaurant meals and other splurges, illustrating one of the key reasons the U.S. economy has been growing so slowly since the official end of the recession more than 18 months ago. Americans have been trying to rebuild their personal finances after becoming overextended during the boom years, putting a brake on spending now.

Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco who studied the years leading up to the recession found that U.S. counties where people took on the least debt relative to their income are in much better economic shape than counties with the highest debt burden.

A major question now is how much longer Americans will continue to pare their debt and rebuild their savings. The answer depends on where debt loads and savings rates will ultimately settle.

By some measures, it looks like there's still a long way to go. The amount of debt relative to the overall size of the economy remains very high by historical standards. And the personal savings rate remains well below the average figure of 7 percent for the past 50 years.

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