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Americans Are More Indebted Than the U.S. Government

Steve Beck

You may remember J. Wellington Wimpy, more commonly known simply as Wimpy, Popeye's beloved friend from the iconic comic strip. Wimpy was soft-spoken and intelligent, but also cowardly, lazy, stingy, and gluttonous. A true scam artist, Wimpy usually finagled his favorite meal, a hamburger, from some unsuspecting patron at the local diner. Wimpy's parsimonious ways included his famous con line, "I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today." Decades later, this character, created in 1932 during the Great Depression, has become a symbol of fiscal irresponsibility.Today, the United States is facing its own Wimpy-esque moment in the form of the debt ceiling. The free burgers have flowed for sometime now, but the patrons have grown wise to the scam. The pitch of pushing off today's payment until some future Tuesday has become a bit haggard and worn thin for many in America. Simply look to Greece, Portugal, Spain, and others to see what it is like to have one's hamburgers taken away--and the forced diet does not look pretty.[In Pictures: 6 Numbers Every Investor Should Follow.]Strangely, as the U.S. citizenry passionately criticizes their government for running up the budget deficit, a greater irony is afoot: When it comes to debt management, Americans are sadly worse than their government.While government debt sits at 94 percent of national revenue, U.S. household debt sits at a whopping 107 percent of personal income. The household balance sheets of Americans are in worse condition than anytime since the Great Depression. The ratio of household debt-to-GDP is greater than anytime since 1929. And while we all are trying to comprehend a poorer nation, many American's have not yet comprehended their own personal poverty.A burger today? From the early 1940s through the late 1960s, an ethos of saving before spending ruled the roost. If you sought to buy a house, 20 percent was required for a down payment. Similarly, substantial savings were required to buy a car, and home furnishings, clothing, and more were paid for primarily with cash. By the 1970s, however, rampant inflation helped form a debt culture that found footing and gained steam.[See 50 Best Funds for the Everyday Investor.]If you saved, inflation threatened to erode the value of your savings, while the price of your desired purchases continued to rise. What was the point of saving when individuals could buy with little to nothing down, deduct interest from their federal tax obligations, and have those things they longed for?Over the coming decades, American household debt ballooned, eventually doubling from $7 trillion to $14 trillion between 2001 and 2007. Debt fears, however, were assuaged by the rapidly growing value of real estate as homeowners used equity lines to buy more property, cars, and pay for vacations and toys. Burgers were flowing for all.Then in 2008, the sudden and violent decline in house prices revealed just how bad the debt binge had been. Tuesday had finally arrived and like Wimpy, our wallets were a bit too thin to meet our obligations.Feeding the furnace or building an engine. Criticizing government fiscal irresponsibility should in turn lead us to honest self examination. At the heart of this audit should be the confrontation of personal debt and the embracing of basic investing disciplines.Each person must make a decision to feed the debt furnace or build a retirement engine.[See What Debt-Ceiling Gridlock Means for Investors.]Like Wimpy, we all experience the gnawing hunger to consume more than we need. Each time we reach out, through credit, for a burger today, we take our future dollars and throw them into the blazing furnace of consumption. The heat of the moment is delightful, but the end result is the poverty unfolding before our nation.When we behave like wise and disciplined investors, we resist our pulsing appetites, take our hard earned dollars, and direct a predetermined portion to smart, long-term investments. In doing so, such investors build an engine through the miraculous power of compounding interest. Unlike Wimpy and other debtors, this interest works in your favor. Ben Franklin understood that for such savers, "Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more." Einstein called compounding the "eighth wonder of the world."Those who reject debt and invest wisely create a powerful engine, so that Tuesday's obligations can be fully met on time, leaving a few burgers to spare. Steve Beck is cofounder of MarketRiders, an online investment advisory and management service helping Americans invest for retirement. MarketRiders gives investors greater peace of mind knowing that they are leveraging the best thinking of Nobel laureates and the investing methods used by the world's most elite institutions and wealthiest families. MarketRiders is on the investor's side, helping reduce investment costs and risks, and increasing retirement savings.