Where Do People Have the Most Debt?

Americans are still up to their ears in consumer debt, with Delawareans topping the list with an average per-person debt load of a whopping $20,233, a report by debt relief company CareOne Services shows.

The company ranks the 10 states with the highest and lowest average consumer debt levels based on a survey of 135,000 people enrolled in debt management programs in 2009 and 2010.

Most alarmingly, it found that even those in California — the state with the lowest debt level — carry more than $12,000 in debt; in fact, residents in all states still carry an average debt load of more than $10,000.

But debt-plagued consumers might not be who you think there are, says Mike Croxson, president of CareOne. He says the typical person calling for help is a female in her mid-30s with a household income of about $37,000 and some college education. Sixty percent of the time she’s a homeowner.

“These are average, hard-working American people who have been juggling their finances--and then something happens,” says Croxson. “Someone loses a job, they get divorced, their car engine blows up. All the balls that were up in the air drop. They have no clue how to pick them up.”

The root of debt accumulation usually stems from one of these three things, he says: people using credit as a gap-filler instead of adjusting their standard of living; using a credit card to pay for an emergency but never fully paying down the balance; or “chronic unconscious incompetence,” a vicious cycle of spending without ever thinking of the consequences.

“People just do what they’ve always done — they spend and they pay, they spend and they pay and they don’t really know what they’re doing,” Croxson says.

Here are some signs you might be in over your head:

You’re “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” If you’re using your Visa to pay off your MasterCard, or if you need to dip into a line of credit to make ends meet, it’s time to take a step back to examine your situation.

You feel out of control. It’s simple enough: constant worry about how you’re going to pay your bills or make ends meet signal a problem.

Your life hits a speedbump because of money. The death of a family member, sudden job loss or major medical emergency are all enough to throw your financial well-being into a tailspin. “If your life gets disrupted because of your income, there’s a good chance you need to speak with someone,” Croxson says.