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Higher Auto Debt-to-Income Ratios Point to Lower Life Expectancy, Study Reveals

debt and life expectancy

Money can’t buy everything, but it would be difficult to argue that there isn’t a direct link between health and income. Take healthcare in the U.S., for example. Chances are, if you can’t afford health insurance, you can’t always get access to vital health care — and that can negatively impact your lifespan.

But what about other financial obligations like credit card or auto-loan debt? Taking it on can be stressful, and stress is commonly believed to be bad for your health. Add in the cost of living and your income to the equation, and you’ve got a significantly more complicated picture. So the question is: How do these various aspects of your financial life factor into your overall health?

To find out, we compared local life expectancies against residents’ debt and income data for people in 797 U.S. counties, considering everything from auto loan debt, credit card debt and student loan debt to mortgage debt and debt from personal loans. Here’s what we found.

Key findings

  • In general, places where consumers have more auto debt relative to income tended to have lower life expectancies than those who have less. There are exceptions to the rule, however. In Hidalgo County, Texas, for example, the life expectancy is nearly 81 years but the average auto debt is roughly 50% of local average income.
  • Residents in Kauai County, Hawaii (No. 1 in our rankings) have a life expectancy of over 83 years and an average auto debt that is less than 12% of their income. Those in Walker County, Ala. (last in our rankings) have a life expectancy of about 71.5 years and auto debt totaling nearly a third of their income.
  • Context is key for this study. New York County, for example, has an average auto debt of roughly $2,900, or 3.7% of income. That places it high on this list, at the 12th-best county for life expectancy. But people there are not just avoiding auto loans to take on less debt — Manhattan is in one of the least car-friendly cities in the U.S.
  • When it comes to mortgage debt, a higher debt relative to income is linked with a higher life expectancy. That trend reaffirms the idea that homeownership is ultimately a good thing — this is despite the fact that a mortgage is one of the biggest financial decisions and burdens a person will take on in their lifetime.
  • The positive correlation between mortgage debt and life expectancy also corresponded to a higher cost of living. California cities can be an expensive place to live; three Bay Area counties made this list: Marin (No. 2), Santa Clara (No. 5) and San Mateo (No. 6). Each are renowned for their high home values and ROI for sellers. In Marin County, for example, the median home was worth just over $750,000 in 2012. In 2017, the median home was worth over $1 million, an increase of roughly 33% over 5 years.
  • When you consider personal loan debt, a higher ratio compared to income generally corresponded with a lower life expectancy. Credit card debt and student loan debt, however, did not have much of a relationship with life expectancy, according to our analysis.
  • At a broader level, our analysis suggests that those with higher incomes tend to take on less debt than those with lower incomes. The major exception is mortgages, which happens to be the only debt category which has the potential for value appreciation (though student loans can be used to increase income).
  • The richest counties tended to have the highest mortgage-to-income ratios, while the poorest counties tended to have the overall highest debt-to-income ratios, excluding mortgages.

Counties with the lowest life expectancy

The 25 counties with the lowest life expectancy run the gambit from about 70 to 75 years, with auto debts accounting for 16.40% to 53.40% of household income. In Walker County, Ala., which has the lowest life expectancy of any county on this list (about 71.5 years), the average auto debt equals nearly a third of household income, while residents’ credit card debts come to 8% of annual earnings. And in addition those debts, personal and student loans each amount to just over 11% of household income.

Out of the 10-worst ranked areas, five Alabama counties made the list, with four making up the bottom on that list. That’s not surprising, however — Alabama ranks 47th in the country for resident happiness, and 50th for overall health, according to a recent analysis from MagnifyMoney, a LendingTree company.

From a regional standpoint, southern states (as defined by the U.S. Census) contribute the vast majority of low-scoring counties, with only three non-southern counties ranking within the bottom 25 for life expectancy. That trend is also in-line when you consider state-wide health and happiness levels.

Counties with the highest life expectancy

A long lifespan, it seems, is positively associated with proximity to the ocean. California and New York counties, for example, account for 10 of the top 25 counties on this list, with Kauai county, Hawaii scoring the number one spot. In fact, Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota and Vermont are the only non-coastal states which have top-scoring areas, taking up just 5 spots out of the top counties for life expectancy.

It’s important to note that high life expectancy does not require a debt-free lifestyle. In fact, every county on this list has more than $5,000 of credit card debt, on average. Plus, auto debts account for about 4% to 26% of household income for these counties, while mortgage debts ranged from 77.20% (Madison County, New York) to a whopping 260.90% of income (Marin County, Calif.).

Overall, life expectancies for these counties range from about 82 to 83.5 years. That’s above the national average (80 years) and ranks up there with some of the best-ranked countries in the world for lifespan, according to data from the Central Intelligence Agency.

If you have high debt, try this first

In general, it’s a good idea to keep non-mortgage debts at a minimum. But life happens, and sometimes taking on a high amount of such debt is necessary. Keep calm: while location can influence lifespan, it isn’t a hard-line predictor by itself. By working to get out of debt, you can help yourself beat that high-debt-shorter-life-expectancy trend while saving yourself more stress in the long-term.

Here are the steps you should take to get it done:

  1. Take stock of your income and expenses. Getting out of debt cannot be accomplished without first knowing where you stand. Those with a regular salary can easily figure out their income; others should review their income and average it out over the course of several months to get a good idea. Next, go into your various accounts and note the minimum payments and total debts as well as terms and interest rates, if applicable. Remember: The sooner you start your journey, the sooner you’ll arrive at the destination.
  2. Organize your debts. List out and prioritize your debts according to interest rate (to save the most money over time) or by balance (for those who want the mental boost that comes with paying off smaller balances faster). You may also wish to take a different approach, using a hybrid of the snowball and avalanche methods, for example. Ultimately, your debt-payoff strategy should be something that you can stick with over a long period of time. Nothing is set in stone at this point — this exercise is to help you understand what you owe and to get you to a place where you can articulate your debt-related goals more clearly.
  3. Consider your debt repayment options. Paying off debt can be intimidating, but there are ways to minimize those expenses. Consolidating credit card balances to a lower interest-rate personal loan, for example, may help you save money in the long-term. (Or, for those with solid credit scores, a 0% APR balance transfer credit card is even better, provided you can pay it off before the rate reverts to a higher figure.) Refinancing your auto loan may also be useful to minimize your long-term debt payments.Talking to a credit counselor can help you figure out which options will be best for you and your unique circumstances. The Department of Justice has a list of credit counseling services you may wish to consider.
  4. Create a realistic budget and payoff-plan. A budget is fundamental to a healthy financial life, and your plan to get out of debt should be based around it. That way, you won’t overextend yourself or slide back into old habits. The key is figuring out which expenses are necessary, which can be minimized, and which can go, based on your needs and tolerance for cutting back. You’ll also want to factor in less regular expenses (think bi-annual insurance dues, necessary one-off expenses like a new laptop, and the like.) And you’ll have to consider how an emergency fund will factor into your budget. Then, you can create a plan to pay off your debt at a pace that works for you.
  5. Start working toward your debt-free life. Now that you have a solid plan in place, it’s time to put it into action. As you go, remember that your progress may not be a straight line, and that’s OK as long as you’re doing your best. The unexpected will come up, as it often does — the important thing is to keep going.

Methodology

To create this analysis, researchers compared life expectancy from the CDC (Center for Disease Control) to anonymized debt statistics from MyLT users. In this case, life expectancy means the expected length of life from birth for people born in that area. For data accuracy purpose only counties with at least 500 users were included in the analysis, leaving the analysis at 797 counties. Data for MyLT users was sampled from the first quarter of 2019.

This article contains links to MagnifyMoney, an affiliate of LendingTree.

 

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