Despite the robust U.S. economy, many Americans feel left behind. They’re stressed about trying to make ends meet, and worried about their financial futures.

Listen to audio highlights of the story below:

A new Harris Poll survey conducted for the non-profit National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) found widespread financial anxiety:

  • Nearly one-third (32 percent) of those surveyed said they are just getting by, which was about the same percent as in last year’s poll.
  • One in three (31 percent) don’t pay all their bills on time, up from 27 percent last year.
  • About six in 10 (61 percent) said “people like them” have not benefited from the improving U.S. economy.
  • Almost one-quarter of Americans (24 percent) said they felt they will never have the things they want in life because of their financial situation.

“People are feeling pretty negative,” said Bryan Mayaen, research manager at The Harris Poll. “If [people] don’t feel like they’re benefiting from the economy, or they’re never going to get what they want in terms of long-term financial goals, that’s not good motivation for planning ahead.”

Adding to this “pervasive anxiety” is what he calls the “staggering” number of Americans—six in 10 (62 percent)—who worry that government instability will “harm their finances in the next 12 months.”

Changing Attitudes About Unpaid Credit Card Debt

The most concerning finding in this year’s poll, according to Bruce McClary, NFCC’s vice president for communications, is how many people are changing their attitudes about debt, based on their feelings about the economy.

“It’s leading people to make some fairly drastic decisions when it comes to how they’re managing their credit and what their outlook is,” McClary told Checkbook. Many Americans are “more comfortable” with maxing out their credit lines, and that’s a “significant change,” he said. For many, it’s just “set the house on fire right now and we’ll worry about it later—and that’s concerning.”

When it comes to current attitudes about debt, The Harris Poll found:

  • One-third (34 percent) of those surveyed reported they were comfortable maxing out their credit cards despite the potential for an economic downturn in the next 12 months.
  • One in five (21 percent) said they believe that if they’re going to have debt, the amount they owe is irrelevant.

Other polls also reveal the growing reliance on credit card debt. A recent Harris poll for NerdWallet found that one in five people (20 percent) will use a credit card to pay for summer travel, but won’t pay off the balance within the first billing statement.

Warning Signs

Total household credit card debt in the U.S. hit a new record high of $1.13 trillion at the end of last year, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The delinquency rate on paying credit card bills is also on the rise, hitting 6.3 percent in the fourth quarter of 2023.

A survey released in January showed that “more credit cardholders are carrying card balances from month to month.” In November 2023, 49 percent of cardholders fell into this credit card “debt revolver” category—up from 39 percent in 2021 and 47 percent in July 2023, Bankrate found.

“This may be the worst time ever to carry credit card debt,” said Ted Rossman, senior industry analyst at Bankrate. “High inflation has led a lot of people to spend more with their credit cards, and record high interest rates are making that debt harder to pay off.”

Maxing out on credit cards and making late payments will lower your credit scores, which can hurt you in many ways. Credit scores are used to determine interest rates on credit cards and auto loans. A poor score might prevent you from renting an apartment or getting cell phone service or other utilities. In all but eight states, insurance companies can use credit scores to help set their auto or home premiums, or both.

“It’s really crucial to encourage responsible credit use and empower people with the tools they need to manage their debt more effectively and more responsibly,” the NCFF’s McClary said.

Getting Back on Track

If you find yourself trapped in debt and feel uncertain about your financial future, there are resources to help you deal with those financial challenges and get you to a better place.

Checkbook advises contacting a nonprofit credit counselor by going to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling website. A certified counselor will help you review your financial goals, create a budget, and create a personalized action plan. The initial consultation is typically free.

“Waiting for something to change, or doubling down on the same destructive financial behavior is the worst thing you could possibly do,” McClary said. “It’s time to turn that process around, by taking action now.”

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Contributing editor Herb Weisbaum (“The ConsumerMan”) is an Emmy award-winning broadcaster and one of America's top consumer experts. He has been protecting consumers for more than 40 years, having covered the consumer beat for CBS News, The Today Show, and You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at