Not So Frugal

Americans aren't paying off debt so much as banks are forgiving it

  • Household debt appears to be falling...but much of that drop is due to write-offs

    Recessions are supposed to teach thrift. So when the amount Americans owe on their houses, cars and credit cards, which more than doubled in the years between the tech and housing busts, fell $550 billion in 2009, commentators said U.S. consumers had reformed. But nearly 2½ years after the financial crisis, we still owe $6 trillion more than we did a decade ago. Worse, figures released by the Federal Reserve in late February revealed that 65% of the recent drop in consumer debt stems not from our paying overdue bills but from write-offs--banks' foreclosing on homes, canceling credit cards and otherwise giving up on trying to collect what they are owed. And with gas and food prices rising, paying down debt will get even tougher.