Jerry and Madeleine Bosco have been forced to switch to a strange, new role for Americans: from big spenders, with credit cards in hand, to penny pinchers.
After the financial crisis hit, Jerry, who helps prepare booths for trade shows, had to take a 15 percent pay cut. Suddenly, the couple found themselves facing $30,000 in credit card debt with no easy way to pay it off. So they sold stocks, threw most of their credit cards in the trash, stopped eating out with friends and cut out ski vacations with their two sons and weekend trips up the coast from their home in Tujunga, Calif.Today, most of the debt is gone but Jerry still hasn't gotten a raise, and the lusher life of the boom years is a distant memory. "We had credit cards and we didn't worry about a thing," says Madeleine, 55. "Our home price was going up. We got DirecTV, and got each of the boys Xbox" game consoles. From the start of record-keeping by the U.S. Federal Reserve in 1951 through June 2008, in booms and busts alike, Americans never failed to add to debt from one quarter to the next. Fortunately, their incomes also rose most of that time. Then wages stagnated in the new millennium. And instead of slowing their borrowing, Americans sped it up. Debt rose from less than 90 percent of annual take-home pay in 2000 to 130 percent in 2007. Americans weren't the only ones who borrowed recklessly. In the 10 years before the crisis, household debt as a percentage of annual pay rose by a third or more in nine European countries. It topped 170 percent in the Netherlands, Ireland and the U.K. Then came the financial crisis and the hard times that followed. In the U.S., debt per adult fell 12 percent the first 4 years after the crisis, mostly a result of people defaulting on loans. In the U.K., debt per adult fell a modest 2 percent, but it had soared 59 percent in a comparable period before the crisis.