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The Top 10 Things Americans Aren’t Willing to Give Up to Be Debt-Free

42% of U.S. adults who have financial debt are worried about paying off their credit card debt. However, the need to pay off debt doesn’t appear to exceed the desire for cell phone service, cars, dining out and streaming for many.

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  • More than 1 in 3 Millennials (23-38 years old) who currently have financial debt (34%) would not be willing to give up movie and TV streaming services for a year to be debt-free.

  • 55% of Baby Boomers (55 to 73 year olds) who currently have financial debt would not be willing to give up owning a car for a year to be debt-free, and are more likely to say this than their Gen X (39-54 year olds) counterparts (45%).

  • Even if offered to have all their debt paid off, more than half of Americans who currently have financial debt (52%) would not be willing to give up having cell phone service for a year.

  • Gen Xers love eating out: 35% of Gen Xers who currently have financial debt would not be willing to give it up for a year to have all their debt paid off. 

If you could have all of your current financial debt paid off by giving up your streaming subscriptions, such as Netflix and Disney+, for a year, would you do it? Nearly 1 in 3 Americans with financial debt (30%) say, “No.”

Given how much stress is caused by money, you might think that most Americans would give almost anything to be debt free. But as it turns out, there’s some stuff that people can’t do without — even if just for a year. The top non-negotiable expenditures for Americans who currently have financial debt are: cell phone service (52%), owning a car (49%), going out to eat (34%) and TV and movie streaming services (30%). 

Money is the root of most worries.

A Tally survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults aged 18 or older, conducted online by The Harris Poll, found that 52% of Americans feel anxious about money at least once a week. This sentiment was particularly high for young adults: 74% for Gen Zers (18-22 year olds) and 70% for Millennials.

It’s no surprise why so many Americans feel anxious about money. According to the survey, more than 3 in 4 U.S. adults (76%) say they have some kind of financial debt. Meanwhile, U.S. Census data* shows that the median U.S. household carries $61,060 in debt. Credit cards are the most common kind of financial debt (49%), followed by housing debt, specifically mortgage loan and/or home equity line of credit debt (34%), car loans (33%), student loans (17%), payday loans (9%) and other forms of debt (8%). Only about a quarter of Americans (24%) say they don’t currently have any financial debt.

Among U.S. adults who currently have financial debt, 42% worry about paying off credit card debt. By comparison, only 25% worry about certain housing loans, which specifically includes mortgage loans (20%) and home equity lines of credit (9%). Even among different generations, paying off debt was a cause of worry among most Millennials (74%), Gen Xers (68%) and Baby Boomers (62%).  

What would you give up to be debt-free?

There’s no shortage of advice on how to become debt-free. Yet, here we are: saddled with debt and worried sick about it. Why is that? 

Whether you’re cutting costs or setting aside money into savings, making sacrifices is hard. The fear of missing out or “FOMO” is a very real obstacle that many people face every day. To better understand people’s non-negotiable expenses, we asked Americans who self-reported as being in financial debt: What products or services would you be unwilling to give up for a year to have all your current financial debt paid off?

Only 7% said nothing. That means 93% of U.S. adults with financial debt have something that they would not give up for a year to become debt-free. Here’s what topped the list.

Cell phone service

More than half of Americans with financial debt (52%) would not forgo having cell phone service for a year in exchange for having all of their current debt paid off. This was the highest ranked product or service among Millennials (56%) and Gen Xers (53%) whereas Baby Boomers were unwilling to forgo cell phone service (53%) second to owning a car (55%). This isn’t surprising given that 75% of U.S. households own a handheld device, such as a handheld computer, smart mobile phone or other handheld wireless computer, according to the Census.**

Owning a car

While 49% of Americans with financial debt would not give up owning a car for a year to have all of their debt paid off, this sentiment is shared more so by older adults. Owning a car was the top non-negotiable expenditure among Baby Boomers (55%), followed by Millennials (50%) and Gen Xers (45%), where both ranked it second.

Dining out

Only a third of Americans who currently have financial debt (34%) would be unwilling to give up eating out for a year to be debt-free. This was surprising given that food and drinks made up the highest share of all credit card expenses among Tally users with above-average credit card debt.

TV and TV movie-streaming services

2019 saw an explosion of new streaming services. Disney+ and Apple TV+ joined the ranks of Netflix, Hulu and HBO in providing original entertainment content. TV and/or movie streaming services ranked third among Millennials (34%), fourth among Gen Xers (30%) and fifth among Baby Boomers (26%) as the product or service that they would be unwilling to give up for a year in order to be debt-free.

Vacationing

Vacations ranked fourth as a non-negotiable expenditure among Baby Boomers (29%). It ranked fifth among Gen Xers (27%) while it ranked sixth among Millennials (27%). Overall, 28% of Americans who currently have financial debt would not be willing to forgo vacations for a year to become debt-free.

Online shopping

Online shopping made up more than 10 percent of all retail sales, U.S. Census data shows.*** But only about one quarter of Americans with financial debt (24%) would give it up for a year to debt-free. This was a similarly shared sentiment across most generations: Gen Xers (22%) and Baby Boomers (22%). Meanwhile, Millennials were more likely than their older counterparts to be unwilling to give up online shopping for a year to become debt-free (30%).

Alcohol

Alcohol ranked seventh (21%) among the services and goods that Americans who currently have financial debt would be unwilling to give up for a year to have all their financial debt paid off. This held true for many of those among the generations that can legally drink: Millennials (23%), Gen Xers (23%) and Baby Boomers (18%).

Fitness membership, subscriptions or classes

Working out ranked eighth (17%) among goods and services Americans with financial debt would be unwilling to give up for a year to become debt-free. When looking at generations specifically, it ranked either eighth or ninth place: Gen Xers (19%), Millennials (17%) and Baby Boomers (14%).

Food delivery apps

For 1 in 5 Millennials with financial debt (20%), the convenience of having food delivered is an expense that they won’t give up, as they would be unwilling to give up using food delivery apps for a year to become debt-free. Meanwhile, only 16% of Gen Xers and 11% of Baby Boomers with financial debt share this sentiment.

Ridesharing services

Of the products and services listed, only 12% of Americans who currently have financial debt were not willing to give up ridesharing services, such as Uber or Lyft, for a year to be debt-free. Millennials (14%) and Gen Xers (14%) are more likely than Baby Boomers (8%) to share this sentiment. 

Tips for finding your own things to give up

Have you considered which things you’d be willing to give up? We recommend giving it a try for yourself. It can help shed light on what you prioritize and where you might be able to save. Here are three tips to help you cut (or adjust) costs and get you on a path to becoming debt-free.

Only pay for what you use

For monthly subscriptions costs, ask yourself if you’re really using each service. For example, having multiple TV and movie streaming subscriptions can quickly add up. Consider only subscripting to one streaming service at a time, turning accounts on and off each month as the movies and shows you want to watch debut. Here’s what this could look like: Get Netflix in February for Narcos: Mexico: Season 2, switch to HBO for Westworld season 3, then Disney+ in the Fall for The Falcon and The Winter Soldier.

Hack your dining habits

Dining out and using food delivery apps can be convenient, but they’re also significantly more expensive than buying groceries. If this is a large monthly expense and cooking at home isn’t always an option, consider these hacks to cut costs. Pick restaurants that serve large portions (covering today’s dinner and tomorrow’s lunch). Order out from restaurants that are along your way home so that you can pick it up yourself to avoid delivery fees. The hot deli section of the grocery store is also a good option at a fraction of restaurant costs. If cooking isn’t an obstacle but time is, try preparing multiple meals ahead of time on Sunday or cut your prep time with ready-to-cook meals.

Cut your phantom expenses

These are forgettable expenses that seem small but can really add up, especially if you’re not using the product or service. The most common culprits are gym memberships that people sign up for in January as part of a New Year resolution but go unused from March onward. If you have expenses that you’re paying for but are not using, cancel them. 

Survey Method

This survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of Tally from October 8-10, 2019 among 2,027 U.S. adults ages 18 and older among whom 1,568 currently have financial debt. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables and subgroup sample sizes, please contact press@meettally.com.  

*Debt for Households, by Type of Debt and Selected Characteristics: 2015 [U.S. Census]
**Handheld Device Ownership: Reducing the Digital Divide [U.S. Census]
***Quarterly Retail E-Commerce Sales Estimate [U.S. Census]