Debt is causing Americans significant stress and anxiety

By Samiha Khanna

A new AICPA survey offers a reminder of the costs of personal debt that aren’t reflected on a credit card statement — anxiety over bills that can lead to sleepless nights, fights with a spouse or partner, and even distraction at work.

According to a phone survey of 1,004 U.S. adults conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of the AICPA, 56% of Americans with debt said it had negatively impacted their lives. Twenty-eight percent said their debt had caused stress about everyday financial decisions, while 21% said it had caused tension with their partner; 19% said they had received letters or calls from collection agencies.

What’s more, nearly a third (31%) of Americans with debt say they worry about it in general, while a quarter (25%) stress about it at bedtime and 18% worry about it at work.

Generational differences

Millennials, the largest generation in the United States, are twice as likely to worry about debt (43%) as Baby Boomers (19%), according to the survey. Almost seven out of 10 Millennials (68%) said debt has negatively impacted their daily life versus about half (48%) of Boomers. That’s true even though Millennials and Boomers are about equally likely to have debt (73% of Millennials vs. 74% of Boomers).

There are a few reasons Millennials have such anxiety about paying off their bills, said Sean Stein Smith, CPA, DBA, a member of the AICPA National CPA Financial Literacy Commission.

“Millennials saw first-hand just how dangerous debt can be during the financial crisis, and really understand the ripple effects that debt can have on their personal and professional lives,” Smith said. “A second reason might have something to do with the relationship between employment opportunities and debt burdens — even as the labor market continues to show signs of strength, labor force participation rates and other indicators are still playing catch-up.”

Causes of debt, and some solutions

Almost three in four survey respondents (73%) said they have some debt. Respondents were most likely to name everyday expenses or bills as a primary cause of their debt (44%). Thirty-six percent said that not making enough money contributed to their debt. Other causes of debt frequently named by survey respondents included:

  • Mortgages (41%).
  • Car payments (33%).
  • Health care costs (32%).
  • Interest payments on credit cards (30%).
  • Student loans (23%).
  • Vacations or luxury purchases (16%).

No matter how daunting the amount, there are a number of ways to pay off your bills, Smith said.

“The most important step is to make a plan and start the process,” he noted. “Work with your creditors, leverage the expertise of your CPA, and take advantage of freely available resources like those found at and”

The best time to talk with creditors is before you miss a payment or delinquencies appear on your account, said Neal Stern, CPA, a member of the AICPA National CPA Financial Literacy Commission.

He also warned consumers to be wary of schemes that offer a quick fix to reduce or eliminate debt.

“These schemes are often illegal and may be designed to defraud victims out of substantial upfront fees or even gather personal information that can be used in identity theft,” Stern advised.

Consumers can verify the legitimacy of such offers by checking with reputable sources such as the Federal Trade Commission, the Better Business Bureau, or the U.S. Comptroller of the Currency, he said.

Samiha Khanna is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Ken Tysiac, a JofA editorial director, at


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