SALT LAKE CITY — For the average Utahn with a credit card, sticking to the minimum payments on their current card debt will result in a nearly two-decade journey to retiring that balance.
And while the state has relinquished its nation-leading bankruptcy rates of years past, Utah is still hovering around the No. 5 spot for personal bankruptcy filings, according to the Virgina-based American Bankruptcy Institute, a figure financial experts say is simply about residents' collective failure to live within their means.
Recent data ranks Utah 27th in the nation for credit card debt per capita, coming in at $2,750 for every adult in the state. Debt.com computed that retiring that amount by making just the required minimum payments results in a payback cycle of 17 years and three months. And the payer would accumulate almost $3,000 in interest over that time.
What to do? The University of Utah's Personal Money Management Director Ann House said it boils down to making better personal financial decisions.
"We're just not as savvy as we should be as far as credit cards go," House said. "While we've made progress on our bankruptcy rates, we're still a state carrying too much debt."
House said Utah's larger-than-average household size does play a role in Utahns' collective fiscal challenges as more kids mean bigger houses and bigger vehicles, which help drive the debt cycle. But, she added, the more significant underlying factor is failing to make, and follow, a family savings plan.
"It appears we may have traded our gains in bankruptcy rates for a kind of society where we just aren't saving," House said. "We're not saving for things we can anticipate, or things we can't. We're not saving for our retirements, we're not saving for our children's' college educations … and we're not even saving for things like vehicle maintenance or home repairs."
House said data released by SmartAsset.com that computed credit card debt in relation to personal income and wealth to create a credit card "health" ranking for U.S. counties showed something that may come as a surprise to some people.
"In data for Utah, you can see that our wealthier counties have more average credit card debt and our poorer counties have lower debt," House said. "This reflects the tendency for people to just adjust spending to whatever they earn, plus a little more, which is the source of the debt we carry."
In fact, Summit County residents have the highest per capita income as well as per capita net worth among Utah counties SmartAsset.com looked at, but only earned a No. 9 ranking in the state. Uintah County residents on average earn more than $20,000 less each year than their Summit County neighbors, but are in much better shape in terms of their credit card debt, reaching the top ranking in Utah.
House suggested a simple calculation that people can use to get a read on their relative financial health.
First, total your monthly expenses and debt payments. Multiply that number by 12. Then, divide the number by your gross annual income. Then move the decimal point two places to the right, and you will have your debt-to-income percentage.
House said a bank will assess you as being in relatively good credit shape if your number is 35 or lower. A percentage of 36-41 would be considered marginal and a number of 42 or larger puts you in the risk category.
Improving that number, getting off the 17-year ride to paying off credit balances and working to become debt-free begins, House said, by making the decision to assemble and follow a family budget. And, she said, committing to a savings plan, even while working to pay off outstanding bills.
"Being smart with your money, learning to be a savvy consumer and always being aware of your budget is the key to finding better financial health," House said. "And always be setting aside some savings ... a critical step to help ensure that one unplanned expense doesn't wreck your long-term plans."