4 tips for Utahns managing mortgages, student loans and other debt

Utah households have nearly $80,000 of personal debt, on average, and that figure is growing. The Salt Lake Tribune talked to two experts about tips for managing personal debt.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune) The average Utah household has nearly $80,000 in personal debt.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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Utah has one of the highest average household debts in the country at nearly $80,000 — and that number has been growing.

Average personal debt in Utah grew 119% between the end of 2003 and the end of 2022 and increased 10.2% between 2021 and 2022, according to data from the Federal Reserve.

Growing debt is a combination of higher costs and human behavior, said Jessie Fan, a professor at the University of Utah.

Fan, who teaches in the Department of Family and Consumer Studies and researches housing saving and borrowing and financial management, said managing increasing debt is all about tradeoffs and finding somewhere to cut back.

Fan and Stephanie Sherrell, the Salt Lake region president for Zions Bank, offered other advice for managing debt.

Look for places to cut back, renegotiate debt

Some debt, like a mortgage, is long-term and a necessity, Fan said.

But there are other places people can cut back or look to renegotiate their debt, she said.

Right now is not a great time to refinance a traditional home or car loan, she said, but there are other options like a home equity loan or a personal loan to consolidate credit card debt.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign advertising mortgage rates is found in Salt Lake City, Friday, Oct. 13, 2023. Average interest rates now are more than double what they were in early 2022.

Lowering an interest rate from 18% or higher to 8% or 10% can save a lot, Fan said.

Learn about compound interest, finances in general

Fan added many people don’t know about compound interest. That’s when you pay interest on the principal and any accrued interest.

Understanding how debt works is important, she said.

But there isn’t a lot of education around debt and finances, Sherrell said. Banks and credit unions try to help, she said, but parents should start at home early teaching their kids about financial responsibility.

She said a lot of people — including her — get out on their own and don’t know where to start.

Don’t ignore debt, act quickly

Once people are in debt, the worst thing they can do is ignore it, Sherrell said. It’s natural to get scared, she said, but it is important to act quickly.

People should talk to their creditors, she said.

“Financial institutions want to be repaid but also want to be fair,” she said.

Fan added people who already have a lot of debt should “really work on changing (their) spending habits to not create new debt.”

Budget, track spending

Debt is not completely avoidable, Sherrell said, but people can minimize the negative impact and should stick to their budget and reevaluate their spending as needed.

Tracking spending can help, whether it’s writing it down on paper or tracking it on a phone app, she said.

“That $5 at Beans and Brew every morning adds up,” she said, and people need to pay attention to their spending.

Need help with debt?

Utah’s Division of Consumer Protection has information about credit reports and repair, debt collection and more at dcp.utah.gov/education.

The United States Department of Justice has information on credit counseling agencies that work with Utahns at justice.gov/ust/credit-counseling-by-state/Utah.

Megan Banta is The Salt Lake Tribune’s data enterprise reporter, a philanthropically supported position. The Tribune retains control over all editorial decisions.