In the Netflix era, many Americans are managing their finances based on their monthly subscription payments, often with little regard to the total they’ll pay in the long run.
That paradigm benefits the automotive industry and the lenders that finance car loans, as auto sales remain near record levels.
The average price of vehicles hit an all-time high of more than $36,000 in 2018, according to Kelley Blue Book – and with interest rates rising, car shoppers are now borrowing more than ever and extending their loans to record lengths.
New-car buyers agreed to pay an average of $551 per month for 69 months in January, according to car-buying advice site Edmunds. That’s nearly 10 percent more per month than three years earlier.
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It’s a clear-cut sign of how Americans feel confident in a strong economy.
Car debt has risen 75 percent since the Great Recession in 2009, reaching an all-time high of $1.2 trillion, according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
"Easy credit and longer repayment terms have coaxed many consumers into buying more car than they can really afford," said Ed Mierzwinski, U.S. PIRG's senior director for consumer programs, in an email. "It's even worse for those who have been subjected to deceptive and predatory lending practices at auto dealers."
Average annual interest rates jumped from 4.68 percent in January 2017 to 4.99 percent that same month in 2018 and then to a 10-year high of 6.19 percent in January 2019, according to Edmunds. With new-vehicle prices averaging nearly $37,000 in January, according to Kelley Blue Book, monthly payments are getting out of reach for many buyers.
Several automotive executives interviewed recently by USA TODAY said car buyers can afford it amid a strong job market and encouraging stock gains.
“The economy is still at a very strong level," said Henio Arcangeli, Jr., a leading executive in Honda’s U.S. division. "Although interest rates are coming up, which obviously can increase the purchase cost of the vehicle, on a historic basis they’re still at a very low level.”
That’s true. Auto interest rates on 4-year loans were never this low in the 1990s, for example, when they ranged between about 7 percent and 12 percent, according to the St. Louis Fed.
But car buyers could run into trouble if the economy takes a turn for the worse and their income drops, especially because they’re locking themselves into long-term loans.
Netflix subscriptions can be canceled. Car payments can't – at least not without giving up the vehicle. About 83 percent of Americans rely on their own car or someone else's to get to work every day, according to an August 2018 poll by research firm Gallup.
More than 7 million Americans are now at least three months delinquent on their auto loan payments, the benchmark for many lenders to trigger a repossession.
According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the number of these troubled borrowers is a million more than in 2010, following the global financial crisis that led to a bailout for automakers and financiers.
Phaedra Wainaina, a new law school graduate in Michigan who recently lost her job as a legal researcher, was quickly overwhelmed by her bills, including a car loan.
"I had to make the decision between paying car notes and buying food,“ the 26-year-old single mom said. She defaulted on her 2010 Chevrolet Equinox loan and the SUV was repossessed. "I am considered someone who has higher education and still got behind."
Deals dry up
One reason the tab is getting more expensive is because deals are harder to find. Zero-percent interest rate offers, which were common following the Great Recession, hit a 13-year low in January, according to Edmunds.
One big reason is the Federal Reserve’s interest-rate hikes, which are aimed at curbing inflation in a strong economy. But the impact on consumers is higher monthly payments.
“The biggest surprise for me is how quickly we’ve seen interest rates go up above 6 percent,” Edmunds analyst Jessica Caldwell said, referring to auto loans. “People were used to low interest rates, and that’s no longer the case. That is kind of frightening for a lot of people.”
One big driver of the bulkier loans is bulkier vehicles, said Melinda Zabritski, senior director of automotive financial solutions for Experian Automotive.
A decade ago, the best-selling segment of vehicles was affordable small cars, like the Ford Focus sedan, she said. Today, it’s entry-level crossovers like the Toyota RAV4 and Ford Escape, which carry starting prices of several thousand more dollars.
“Fundamentally consumers have changed what they’re buying,” Zabritski said. “That’s part of where we’re seeing these rising prices.”
They’ve changed so much that the Focus, in fact, is gone. Ford is discontinuing the car, along with the Fusion and Fiesta sedans. And General Motors is killing the Chevrolet Cruze, a Focus competitor, along with several other car models.
That’s because rising interest rates simply haven’t stopped people from borrowing more to fuel their thirst for bigger and bigger vehicles in the SUV boom, which has depressed sales of cheaper and smaller passenger cars.
The average new-car buyer borrowed $31,707 in January, marking an all-time high for the month, according to Edmunds.
And the most common loan term is now 72 months, according to Experian.
The good news is the average consumer has “a very healthy balance sheet” right now, said Lakhbir Lamba, executive vice president of retail lending at PNC.
But Lamba noted that while PNC doesn’t offer loans beyond 72 months, many of the bank’s competitors are offering 84-month loans or even longer in some cases.
“There’s been a lot of debate over, is there stress … in that asset class, and I’ll tell you, a lot of it depends upon the financial institution and the type of consumer they’re lending money to,” Lamba said. “We’ve seen some stress but nothing that would concern us.”
How to avoid paying too much
Advisers say car buyers should consider the total amount they’re paying over time. But many people think more about whether they can handle the monthly payment.
At January's rates, a 60-month loan on the average amount borrowed costs a total of $36,947 over time. Adding just 12 months to the loan increases the cost of the vehicle by $1,092.
“It feels like everything is advertised to us at a monthly rate,” Caldwell said. “That’s the way we’ve been conditioned now.”
Another tip: If you can’t afford a midsize SUV, for example, consider a midsize car. The price difference between the average midsize SUV and the average midsize car in January was $38,744 to $25,930, according to Kelley Blue Book.
Contributing: Detroit Free Press reporter Frank Witsil
Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why Americans are suddenly paying $550 per month for new cars