WASHINGTON — The economy trudges ahead yet debt dogs many Americans, stressing them out even as they firm up their own financial foundations.
There are new jobs produced but old worries persisting for people despite belt-tightening and boosted savings, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll.
About 46 percent of those surveyed say they're suffering from debt-related stress, and half of that group described their stress as a "great deal" or "quite a bit." About 53 percent say they feel little or no stress at all.
That's in line with findings from last year, though times seem better today: The economy is generating jobs, and households have made progress in repairing financial footing, trimming debt, watching spending and saving.
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It's a big turnaround from a year ago — a shrinking economy, jobs jettisoned as businesses struggled to survive the deepest recession since the 1930s.
So why aren't the stressed — and the not-so-stressed — feeling better?
For starters, it doesn't feel much like recovery to many.
Unemployment is stubbornly high — 9.9 percent. The jobless face fierce competition for work. Those with jobs are watching paychecks shrink.
A growing number of people are at risk of falling into foreclosure, and only those with the most stellar credit are likely to get a new loan. AP-GfK
polls show that only 20 percent say the economy is good, compared with 15 percent last year.
Cynthia Bryant, 73, feels stress from her bills — much of that related to medical expenses.
"I need a different car. I can't afford it. I have to watch every penny that comes in," says Bryant, who worked as a purchasing agent for a computer company before she retired. Bryant, who lives in a Denver suburb, gets by on a fixed income that hasn't budged, although her expenses — rent, groceries and other basics— have risen.
Ken Goldstein, economist at the Conference Board, a research group that keeps tabs on consumers, says it's individual circumstances — more so than sentiment about the economy — that shape confidence and stress over debt. "It's about what happens to me — my house, my car, my job," he says.
Christina Standridge, 33, of Milwaukee, says she's stressed about debts including car payments.
Laid off twice in the past two years, Standridge has watched her income drop. She worries about losing her current job as an administrative assistant for a company that designs and builds wastewater control systems.
Standridge and her husband, who works at a factory fixing machines, have one daughter. The family is watching pennies. "We're trying to spend less and pay off the bills," she says. "We're cutting corners wherever we can. We're trying to do things that are relatively cheap," she adds, such as having a backyard barbecue rather than going out to eat or to the movies.
People are whittling debt.
The average amount owed on credit cards is $3,900, the poll said. That's down from $5,600 in the fall and $4,900 last spring.
Families with incomes over $50,000 have sliced their credit card debt by more than half, yet their stress from debt hasn't changed — it's moderately low. Families with incomes under $50,000 have added only slightly to their debt, while their stress level rose sharply.
Goldstein says human nature can factor into people's feelings of debt-related stress.
"You have the optimists and the pessimists. You get half the world looking up at the stars and the other half with their head down looking at the mud," he says.
More broadly, people are cutting their debt at the fastest rate in more than six decades, according to the Federal Reserve. People defaulting on mortgages and other loans factor into the reduction, economists point out.
Household debt fell 1.7 percent last year to $13.5 trillion, according to the Fed. It was the first annual drop, based on records back to 1945.
People on average carry around $44,000 in debt — mortgages, credit cards, auto loans and other debt. That's a far bigger load than in the early 1980s, when unemployment topped 10 percent. In 1982, per capita debt totaled about $14,000 in today's dollars.
At the same time, people are building up savings — 4.2 percent of their disposable income last year, the most since 1998, the Commerce Department says.
A Debt Stress Index tied to the AP-GfK poll was 29.2 in May, unchanged from a year ago. The reading signals moderately low stress.
Paul J. Lavrakas, a research psychologist and AP consultant who analyzed the AP-GfK survey, finds that among those with the most stress from debt are women, married couples, people age 30-44, and the poor — households with incomes less than $20,000.
Those with the least debt stress include men, retired people, single people, those 60 and older, and the wealthy — households with incomes greater than $100,000, he says.
Last year, Democrats felt better about their finances than Republicans, despite generally being in worse shape. That sense seems to have worn off: Democrats now report higher debt stress levels on average than Republicans.
Retired mechanical engineer Patrick Burns, 60, of Allyn, Wash., is among those who isn't stressed over debt. He keeps his IOUs to a minimum.
"I've never really gotten into debt," he says. "I've always kind of lived within my means, and I've found there's a lot less stress with that."
The AP-GfK poll involved interviews with 1,002 adults and was conducted May 7-11. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.