WASHINGTON — Just last fall, Americans were feeling better about their personal finances. Now they're starting to worry more about how they'll pay off debts as they feel the nation's economic recovery wobbling.
With Congress deadlocked over how to deal with the national debt, household debt is causing stress for nearly half the country, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll. One in five adults worries about debt most or all of the time. If they bought something on a credit card in the past month, more than a third say they won't pay it off when the bill comes.
The increased stress represents a reversal from last fall's AP-GfK poll, which found increasing confidence about personal finances. Debt-related stress is up 17 percent from that November survey, bumping such worries back up to levels seen in 2009 and the spring of last year.
"It's not that our debt is huge. It's just hard to make it, month to month," said Theresa Telford, 45, a teacher's aide raising four kids with her husband, a sheriff's deputy. "It seems like everything is going up, but wages aren't going up."
Telford is also nervous because she's watched so many people lose their jobs in her small town of Davenport, Wash., and some of her friends still can't find work. Although the recession officially ended in June 2009, Americans display little faith in a recovery hobbled by grinding unemployment, slow economic growth, volatile gasoline and food prices and political feuding over how to stem the skyrocketing national debt. Consumer confidence fell to a seven-month low in June in The Conference Board's survey.
"We're starting to be fearful again that things may fall apart," said Paul J. Lavrakas, a research psychologist and AP consultant who analyzed the survey. Lavrakas and other researchers have found that debt can be bad for one's health as well as the wallet. Those suffering the most anxiety over their debt are at risk for stress-related illnesses, such as ulcers, depression or heart attacks.
The poll found that households earning more than $75,000 had the biggest increase in debt-related stress since November. But stress levels continue to be highest within the most vulnerable groups: households that have lost jobs, people with family incomes below $20,000, single parents and adults without high school diplomas. Married mothers and adults under 30 years old showed significantly more anxiety than in the fall.
In all, more than 40 million Americans are feeling serious stress over the money they owe, whether it's for credit cards, mortgages, car loans or other debts, the poll indicates.
It's a tough period for high school dance instructor James J. Moran of Shelton, Conn. He doesn't get paid during summer break, except for the occasional dancing or acting jobs he lands.
"For three months I scrape by, and I can only afford to make the minimum payments on my credit cards," said Moran, who owes more than $5,000 on his cards and about $14,000 in student loans. "I put more toward the debts when I can, but when I can't that's when I really worry."
The news isn't all bleak. Although it ticked upward, the Debt Stress Index based on the AP-GfK poll came in at 29.2, still within the range considered moderately low. Most people say they are handling their credit cards well in lean times.
Nine out of 10 people with credit cards say they trust themselves to handle debt. Most say they use credit cards because they're more convenient than cash. About half say they charge only what they can afford to pay for at the end of the month.
"Am I going off and buying things right now? No," said Donald Doane, 53, of Duluth, Minn. Doane said he carries "a little debt but nothing I can't handle" on a low-interest credit card that he reserves for emergencies and big purchases.
A salesman for Savories Catering in Duluth, Doane tracks the economy by how much his customers spend on wedding receptions and office parties. "People are spending," he said, "it's just that they're being more frugal."
Americans have been borrowing less and saving more in response to the Great Recession and its aftermath. Credit card borrowing increased in May, only the second monthly gain since August 2008, according to the Federal Reserve System's latest figures. The total is still down 18.5 percent from its peak in August 2008.
The AP-GfK poll put median credit card debt in June at $800, the same as in November. Average debt was down slightly from November at $3,200. About four in 10 people surveyed owe more than $1,000 in credit card debt. One in every 10 owes $10,000 or more.
Lavrakas said the poll provides a snapshot of the typical American who is seriously stressed by debt: a working parent in his or her 30s or early 40s who doesn't have a high school diploma and is raising a family on a household income of less than $20,000.
Those reporting the highest stress levels were more likely than others to say they had debt due to medical bills, their financial situation was "very poor," they charge things they know they cannot pay off when the bill comes and they don't trust themselves to manage their credit cards. They are pessimistic about the future, both because of their personal finances and those of the nation.
"The most stressed people are at the lower financial tiers, and that's just the reality of their life," Lavrakas said. "The optimism that some of them may have had last fall didn't pan out. They've sunk into being pessimistic, and they have good reason to be."
Troy Clawson, a disabled former construction worker in Felsenthal, Ark., said he has been worrying more about his debts — his mortgage and car payments, medical bills for himself and his wife, and store credit cards at Walmart and an auto repair shop.
So Clawson, 60, is trying to be more cautious and avoid pulling out his credit cards. "I don't really like to," he said, "but sometimes it's necessary when you're in a bind."
The AP-GfK poll was conducted June 16-20 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,001 adults nationwide, including 715 who have credit cards. Results for the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.