If the word crisis had two best friends, they would likely be named student loan and credit card debt, given how frequently those two forms of borrowing — totaling $1.56 trillion and $820 billion, respectively — are referred to as a crisis.
Fair enough. Payments on each drag down household finances and keep families from buying homes, saving for retirement and sending the next generation to college. And the crisis label has — in ways good and bad — made some people reluctant to take on these forms of debt.
But where’s the word crisis when it comes to car debt, which has nearly doubled in the past decade to $1.37 trillion?
Borrowing can be productive, necessary or self-destructive
In the culture of debt shaming, people often feel worst about their student loans, even though this borrowing often helps them get the education to qualify for a better-paying and more rewarding career. And guilt around credit card debt is nearly universal, even though one in three people says they borrowed on plastic to pay a medical bill and many, pressed for cash from low wages, use a card to buy groceries for the family.
Car debt, however, seems to get a cultural free ride. Maybe it’s due to the political favor granted car companies and their workers, or our general love of automobiles. But given that cars depreciate rapidly and increasingly are priced far above most households’ ability to afford them, car debt deserves some shade.
A necessity with a $40,000 price tag?
A car, or two, may be a household necessity, but the auto industry is loading cars with more than the necessities and car buyers increasingly take the bait.
Buyers in January paid an average of $40,857 for their new wheels, according to Kelly Blue Book, a price increase of more than 5% from a year earlier. (For the record: Inflation was under 2%.)
Cox Automotive reports that 24% of models had a base price below $30,000 last year, compared to 54% in 2012. During that stretch, cars priced between $50,000 and $60,000 grew from less than 5% of the market to nearly 20%.