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As more Californians fall behind in making debt payments, one group stands out

Don Lee, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

Stubbornly high inflation and interest rates are taking an increasing toll in California as the state experiences rising unemployment and slowing wage gains. And those feeling it the hardest: the largest and perhaps most budget-minded generation of them all.

Millennials, those roughly 28 to 43 years old, are generally thought to be more averse to debt and better savers than earlier cohorts such as Gen X (44 to 59 years old) and baby boomers (60 to 78).

But new data from the California Policy Lab at UC Berkeley show that while consumer debts overall are growing and becoming more difficult to manage for all but the very oldest generation in America, millennials are having the most trouble making their loan payments on time.

In the first quarter, 7.6% of millennial borrowers were at least 30 days late in making monthly payments on their credit card, auto and other loans. That compares with 6% of Gen X, 5.5% of Gen Z (ages 18 to 27) and 3.3% of boomers who fell behind on their loans. The earlier Silent and Greatest generations had even lower delinquency rates.

Unlike for Gen X-ers and boomers, the overall loan delinquency rate among millennials — who make up about one-fourth of California's population — has now climbed above pre-pandemic levels. And economists worry that financial pressures will only continue to mount, especially with an end to the student loan repayment pause. Among other things, millennials are known for carrying a lot of college loan debt.

"I see no reason to believe that delinquencies aren't going to be tracking higher," said Evan B. White, the California Policy Lab's executive director.

 

Foreclosures and personal bankruptcies for all ages are still very low by historical standards, as is the percentage of after-tax income that households are spending on making debt payments, another important indicator of financial stress.

Even so, consumers in California and across the country have been taking on more debt in recent quarters, including credit card borrowing. And 30-day delinquencies have been creeping higher — an early warning sign of potential trouble ahead.

Thus far consumer spending, which accounts for most of the nation's economic growth, has held up well. But many people are feeling the effects of what's been an extended period of high inflation and interest rates. A pullback by consumers could have a significant effect on the broader economy.

In the Federal Reserve's annual report on the economic well-being of Americans, also released this week, about two-thirds of adults surveyed said that changes in the prices they paid in 2023 compared with the prior year had made their financial situation worse. And one-fifth of them said inflation had made things much worse.

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