America's Car Loan Debt Is out of Control and Getting Worse

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The sad truth about living in a country that has no real serious commitment to mass transit is that if you don’t live in New York City, Boston, Washington, D.C., or the Bay Area, you need a car to live and work. Cars are great, sure, and we love them, but the shocking rise in delinquent car payments shows the major downsides to car-centric economics.

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And a lot of people don’t have $10,000 or $20,000 lying around, and purchasing power for most people hasn’t risen in decades, meaning car loans are an increasingly necessary fact of life for a good chunk of the car-buying public.

How big a chunk? According to new data from Lending Tree, car loans amounted to $1.14 trillion in total as of September 2018, or about eight percent of all of outstanding consumer debt in 2018, a number that includes mortgages but also things like credit card debt. That number was six percent 10 years ago; you can see where this is trending.

Further, the terms keep getting worse. We looked awhile back at 84-month car loans, increasingly becoming a thing because you people can’t stop buying big trucks. But Lending Tree also reports that payments are rising, with payments averaging $530 per month for new vehicles, up five percent from last year.

Here’s a few more tidbits per Lending Tree:

Americans originated a record 2.5 million auto loans in July 2018, the most recent month for which data is available.

[...]

Outstanding auto loan balances are rising about 3.1% a year in dollar amounts.

[...]

Gen Xers carry the highest auto loan balances with a median of $18,741 and are the most likely of other age groups to have a car loan.

The average new car loan originated by a finance company is $29,921.27, an increase of more than $5,000 from 10 years earlier.

Average monthly payments are rising, too:

$530 for new vehicles, up 5% year over year

$381 for used vehicles, up 4%

$430 for a new vehicle lease, up 4%

The average auto loan term in the third quarter of 2018 was 68.5 months, a half-month increase from one earlier.

2.3% of outstanding auto debt is “seriously delinquent” (90 days or more).

That last stat I’m honestly surprised is so low, but it also probably in part reflects our mass transportation crisis. People will do almost anything to keep from having their cars get repossessed, as integral as they are to modern American life. I live in New York City, and I have a car, which is a massive luxury, but I’m also not so far removed from the days when having a car was a necessity for me to live and work. For tons of people in this country—probably most—that’s reality.

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You can see the full Lending Tree report here if you’re interested, along with a bunch of charts and graphs and such.

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About the author

Erik Shilling

News Editor at Jalopnik. 2008 Honda Fit Sport.