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Americans in this generation carry the highest levels of debt

CNBC logo CNBC 9/17/2019 Megan Leonhardt

When it comes to debt, Americans who belong to Gen X are carrying the most.

On average, Gen Xers (ages 39 to 54) have racked up $36,000 in personal debt, excluding home mortgages, according to Northwestern Mutual's 2019 Planning & Progress Study. The findings are based on a survey conducted by The Harris Poll of over 2,000 U.S. adults.

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That debt level is higher than any other generation surveyed. But to some extent, that's to be expected at that stage of life, Chantel Bonneau, a financial advisor with Northwestern Mutual, tells CNBC Make It. Many people in Gen X are juggling several different financial obligations: paying down a home mortgage, raising children and perhaps helping out their aging parents.

"Their priorities are just all over the place," Bonneau says. "They have so many financial masters they have to serve at the same time."

They certainly have more than other generations, such as millennials (ages 23 to 38) and baby boomers (ages 55 to 73), Barbara Ginty, a certified financial planner and host of the "Future Rich" podcast, tells CNBC Make It. "Millennials might not have reached this 'financially full plate' life stage yet, while baby boomers should be starting to have less liabilities and less obligations."

But at the same time, those who are part of Gen X have also been "dealt a hand of bad timing on some level," Bonneau says. That's because this generation, in particular, was hit hard by the 2008 financial crisis. "Many of them owned homes and took a huge setback, maybe went through a few years of unemployment," Bonneau says.

Many may have built up debt that they just haven't been able to pay off yet while juggling their other financial responsibilities.

Looking at the total debt that the average Gen Xer is carrying, mortgages are the biggest percentage of the load, followed by credit card bills and education loans, according to Northwestern Mutual's survey.

Across all generations, Americans have accrued an average of $28,900 in personal debt, excluding mortgages. While that's a lot, it's actually lower than the $38,000 respondents reported last year.

When it comes to paying down that debt, the biggest portion of Americans, 40%, feel that they will pay everything off within five years. The first step: Take inventory.

"The best course of action is to get a handle on where you are today and then come up with a plan to tackle the debt," Ginty says. For many struggling with debt, the hardest part is acknowledging it and facing it head-on.

"A lot of people ignore it, which only makes it worse," Ginty says. Instead, learn what the balances and interest rates are for your outstanding debts. Then come up with a plan to pay them down and set up a budget that works with your strategy.

You can use either the so-called "avalanche method," where you start by paying off the debt with the highest interest rate, or the "snowball method," where you start with the smallest balance, pay it off, and then work your way toward tackling the biggest debts.

No matter which strategy you choose, creating a plan and executing it will hopefully alleviate some financial stress since you're taking control of the situation, Ginty says.

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