Let's Pay it Down Today Between credit-card balances, massive mortgages and outsize car loans, debt has become an all-American problem
By Jean Chatzky

(MONEY Magazine) – Two and a half years ago, Sue and Charlie Jordan gave up high paying corporate jobs in Minneapolis (his as an architect and hers in equity research) and purchased a picture-perfect resort in a town with a picture-perfect name--Hanging Horn Village in Moose Lake, Minn. "We had always wanted to run a resort," Sue explains. When they finally found the right property at the right price, they packed up their four kids, sold their 3,500-square-foot colonial and moved north. Making a go of it hasn't been easy--three years of no snow at what's supposed to be a snowmobiling resort hasn't helped. But they're making progress, increasing revenue at a comfortable 15% a year.

Sue says she could see the light at the end of the tunnel if one thing weren't standing in the way: debt--$12,000 in high-rate credit-card debt, to be precise. "We've always been big spenders and not very organized," she says. "But now that we have our whole family riding on the success of this business, I feel our debt is an overwhelming black cloud. We need help."

They're not alone. Credit-card debt in the U.S.--now averaging $8,000 per household--is at an all-time high. And that number masks a bigger problem because it includes households with no credit-card debt at all. Households that do have credit-card debt carry closer to $12,000, according to University of Rochester professor Robert Manning, author of Credit Card Nation. What's more, data from CardWeb.com indicate that the percentage of credit-card users who pay off their cards each month--called "convenience users"--has dropped precipitously, from 44.4% in 2000 to 37.4% today.

Credit-card debt is just the tip of the iceberg. A decade-long refi boom coupled with looser down-payment requirements means that we hold less equity in our homes than at any time in history--just 56% on average--and less equity in our cars as well. All this is happening as our average savings rate has slowed dramatically. Over the course of a generation, families have gone from having 11% of their income in savings and carrying 3% in consumer debt to having 1% in savings and carrying 12% in consumer debt, says Harvard University professor Elizabeth Warren, co-author of The Two-Income Trap. That's why foreclosures and auto repossessions are increasing. Says Warren: "There's no capacity to withstand bumps in the road."

Who are these people? They're your neighbors, your colleagues, your friends. Warren's research shows that many bankrupt Americans are middle-income, college-educated parents in dual-income families. A study from Demos USA, a nonpartisan think tank, found that the credit-card debt of Americans households earning from $50,000 to $100,000 went up 75% between 1989 and 2001.

You can't dig your way out of a hole this deep by skipping a latte or bringing your lunch to work. Little fixes can save hundreds of dollars a year. But when you have $12,000 in credit-card debt, you don't need hundreds of dollars--you need thousands. And that takes a real plan.

As Sue Jordan knows, it's pretty tough to live with debt hanging over your head. "I've started to feel exhausted by the weight of it," she says.

"If it were more manageable, I'd have so much more energy and enthusiasm to keep this business afloat. I just don't know how to get there."

We do. Over the next year, we're going to try to help you take control, with regular coverage in MONEY magazine and segments on NBC's Today. We'll help you understand and improve your credit score, structure a safety net and stay out of debt. You may have to give up some conveniences, but I guarantee that you can make progress.

In fact, by this time next year, I hope I can report that we've helped 100,000 people reduce their debt. I know that sounds ambitious. But I have faith in you. Let's get started.