Are Americans wising up about personal debt? Or are they doubling down?

It seems like an obvious truth: America has a big problem with personal debt. The statistics seem to prove it, from owing $854.2 billion on credit cards to $1.2 trillion in student loans.

It’s not always so clear, however. For instance, a recent survey revealed…

While 70 percent of millennials indicated that they carry debt, the total average debt for all respondents was $43,264 — down 9.3 percent from $47,689 in 2015.

Then again, Experian recently crunched some numbers to prove…

U.S. automotive loan balances climbed 11.5 percent to reach $987 billion in the fourth quarter of 2015. …This marks the highest level on record since Experian began publicly tracking the data in 2006.

However, GoBankingRates just polled taxpayers and asked what they plan to do with a tax refund if they get one…

Of those who do expect to receive a refund, the most common answer respondents picked is paying off debt like a loan or credit card, with 27 percent choosing this response.

I could go on like this all day — and in fact, this is often what my day is like. I scour the business and academic research for clues about America’s views on debt. Many days are just like this one: a mixed bag.

If you simply look at the headlines of these studies and polls, you’re likely to be more confused than enlightened. To get an accurate portrait of Americans’ personal debt, you need to dive deeper.

For instance, that poll of millennials contained this quote from Tom White, the CEO of IQuantifi, the firm that conducted it…

Debts, especially student loans, are driving millennials to focus on their finances at a younger age. Our study found a significant decrease in millennials’ average individual debt burden over just last year. We believe that this generation has been forced to tackle significant financial obstacles and is searching for financial guidance and knowledge to help them do so.

Basically, White is theorizing that being crushed by student loans early in life has made millennials more fiscally responsible as they age. If that’s true, and if the country figures out a solution to the student loan crisis, it could mean the net result is a positive one.

Even that scary Experian report — which shows Americans rushing to buy new cars as the economy improves, even if their personal debt hasn’t — has a silver lining…

Findings from the report show that 30-day delinquencies are down across the board. This pushes the overall rate to 2.57 percent from 2.62 percent a year ago.

So what’s the lesson here? For individuals struggling to conquer their debts, don’t worry about what everyone else is doing — because it’s quite possible even the experts aren’t sure.

Instead, take a survey of your own financial situation. Solving your personal debt is, well, personal. Pollsters can’t tell you what to do, but a certified credit counselor can. That’s why I always recommend people call one. While there are many to choose from, you can call at 1-800-810-0989 and get a referral. The call is free, and so is the debt analysis.

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About the Author

Howard Dvorkin, CPA

Howard Dvorkin, CPA

I’m a certified public accountant who has authored two books on getting out of debt, Credit Hell and Power Up, and I am one of the personal finance experts for I have focused my professional endeavors in the consumer finance, technology, media and real estate industries creating not only, but also Financial Apps and Start Fresh Today, among others. My personal finance advice has been included in countless articles, and has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Forbes and Entrepreneur as well as virtually every national and local newspaper in the country. Everyone should have a reason for living that’s bigger than themselves, and besides my family, mine is this: Teaching Americans how to live happily within their means. To me, money is not the root of all evil. Poor money management is. Money cannot buy happiness, but going into debt always buys misery. That’s why I launched I’m glad you’re here.

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