Republicans, claiming revulsion over the U.S. government's $14.3 trillion in debt, say Washington needs to take a hard look at its finances and balance the books like the typical American family.
"It's simple. Spend what you take in. That's what every family has to do ... imagine the federal government actually doing what makes sense," said U.S. Representative Jim Jordan, a prominent conservative Republican.
Jordan is among a string of politicians who say the nation's mounting debt can be resolved with a simple dose of prudent planning. There's a problem with that scenario:
American families are awash in debt, too. Families watch their spending and balance their budgets "and then when they don't have enough money, they put it on their credit cards," said Bill Hardekopf, CEO of LowCards.com, which analyzes the credit card industry.
On Monday, the federal government reached the end of its credit line, hitting the statutory $14.3 trillion debt ceiling set by Congress. Republicans warn they'll refuse to raise it unless some tough spending-reductions are enacted, putting the U.S. government at risk of defaulting on its debt payments.
But in looking for ways to balance its budget, policymakers may want to avoid taking cues from American families.
According to the latest Federal Reserve statistics, U.S. consumer credit is at about $2.4 trillion for short- and intermediate-term borrowing on credit cards and for car loans, vacations, boats and college loans. That did not count the trillions of dollars in borrowing for home mortgages.
Americans are juggling about $796 billion in credit card debt alone, according to the statistics.
The average credit card debt per U.S. household is $8,329, Hardekopf said, quoting a March Nilson Report. That figure rises to $10,679 when only households that actually have credit cards — about 75 percent — were factored in, he said.
It's no wonder there's a bumper sticker out there asking:
"Can I pay my Visa with my Master Card?"
The National Foundation for Credit Counseling conducts an annual "financial literacy" survey that tracks consumers' borrowing habits and financial worries.
Its latest survey, carried out last March by Harris Interactive, found only 43 percent of families said they had a household budget and kept close track of how much they spent on food, housing and entertainment.
Fifty-six percent said they didn't have any budget at all.
And, according to the NFCC survey, while 68 percent said they paid their bills on time, many apparently were not paying off their entire credit card bills each month.
Forty percent said they carried credit card debt from month to month, while half said they did not. A whopping 73 percent said they were worried about their financial situation.
Gail Cunningham, NFCC vice president of public relations, said that "for those who do not ascribe to responsible financial behavior, either by their own choosing or from uncontrollable circumstances like job loss ... it's a rough road out there."
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