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Associated Press, Published June 01 2010

Poll: Debt has Americans stressing out

WASHINGTON – The economy trudges ahead, yet debt dogs many Americans, stressing them out even as they firm up their own financial foundations.

There are new jobs produced but old worries persisting for people despite belt-tightening and boosted savings, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll.

About 46 percent of those surveyed say they’re suffering from debt-related stress, and half of that group described their amount of stress as being “great deal” or “quite a bit.” On the other hand, about 53 percent say they feel little or no stress at all.

That’s in line with findings from last year, even though times seem better today; the economy is growing and generating jobs, and households have made progress in repairing their financial footing, trimming debt, watching spending and saving more.

It’s a big turnaround from a year ago – a shrinking economy, jobs jettisoned as businesses struggled to survive the deepest recession since the 1930s.

So why aren’t the stressed – and the not-so-stressed – feeling better?

For starters, it just doesn’t feel much like a recovery to many people.

Unemployment is stubbornly high – 9.9 percent. The jobless face fierce competition for work. Those with a job are watching their paychecks shrink.

A growing number of people are at risk of falling into foreclosure, and only those with the most stellar credit probably can get a new loan. AP-GfK polls show that only 20 percent say the economy is good, compared with 15 percent last year.

Ken Goldstein, economist at the Conference Board, a research group that keeps close tabs on consumers, says it’s people’s individual circumstances – more so than their sentiment about the economy – that shape their confidence and their stress over debt. “It’s about what happens to me – my house, my car, my job,” he says.

People are whittling their debt.

The average amount owed on credit cards is $3,900, the poll said. That’s down from $5,600 in the fall and $4,900 last spring.

Families with incomes over $50,000 have sliced their credit card debt by more than half, yet their stress from debt hasn’t changed much – it’s moderately low. Families with incomes under $50,000, however, have added only slightly to their debt, but their stress level rose sharply.