Liz Weston: Are you a yo-yo debtor? Ways to break that cycle

Americans’ debt loads, like our waistlines, tend to expand as we approach middle age and then gradually diminish as we get older.

Some people, though, are yo-yo debtors, fighting an ongoing up-and-down battle with debt. They pay it off, or come close, only to find themselves battling bills once again. But there are ways to break that cycle.

By age 21, Chris Browning of Long Beach, California, had accumulated $5,000 in credit card debt — mostly from eating out and trying to impress his then-girlfriend, who is now his wife.

“I guess it worked,” says Browning, an accountant.

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After several failed attempts, Browning, 30, made and stuck to a budget. He cut back on expensive meals, looked for free entertainment and slowly paid down the balances until he was debt-free four years later in April 2012.

That didn’t last. As the couple prepared for their wedding that November, debt crept back in.

“By October 2012, we had over $14,000 in credit card debt. Then from there things just snowballed,” Browning says. “Between finding a new place to live, school costs, medical bills and just poor decisions, our debt grew to just under $27,000 by November of 2014.”

LOOK BEYOND DEBT TO OTHER SIGNS

The vast majority of American households — roughly eight out of 10 — carry at least some debt during their working years, according to the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances.

The median amount owed peaks when the head of household is between the ages of 45 and 54 and diminishes afterward. The mix tends to change, with younger households more likely to have student loans and older households more likely to have mortgages and credit card balances. More than a third of households headed by people under 55 also have auto loans.

Owing money isn’t necessarily a crisis unless you consistently live beyond your means, putting you at risk of bankruptcy or a lower standard of living. Signs you’re doing that include:

—Your debt payments, including mortgage or rent, eat up more than 40 percent of your gross income.

—You’re struggling to make minimum payments.

—Your net worth — what you own versus what you owe — is shrinking rather than growing over time.

—Your debt prevents you from saving for important goals, including retirement and emergencies.

Not having savings also can contribute to the yo-yo phenomenon,…

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