Younger households are more likely to have student loan debt,...

Younger households are more likely to have student loan debt, while older households have mortgages and credit card balances to worry about. Credit: Getty Images / Geber86

Americans’ debt loads, like our waistlines, tend to expand as we approach middle age and then gradually diminish as we get older.

Some people, though, are yo-yo debtors, fighting an ongoing up-and-down battle with debt. They pay it off, or come close, only to find themselves battling bills once again. But there are ways to break that cycle.

  • Look beyond debt to other signs. The vast majority of American households — roughly eight out of 10 — carry at least some debt during their working years, according to the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances.

The median amount owed peaks when the head of household is between the ages of 45 and 54 and diminishes afterward.

The mix tends to change, with younger households more likely to have student loans and older households more likely to have mortgages and credit card balances. More than a third of households headed by people under 55 also have auto loans.

Owing money isn’t necessarily a crisis unless you consistently live beyond your means, putting you at risk of bankruptcy or a lower standard of living. Signs you’re doing that include:

  • Your debt payments, including mortgage or rent, eat up more than 40 percent of your gross income.
  • You’re struggling to make minimum payments.
  • Your net worth — what you own versus what you owe — is shrinking rather than growing over time.
  • Your debt prevents you from saving for important goals, including retirement and emergencies.

Not having savings also can contribute to the yo-yo phenomenon, where people pay off debt only to face a big unexpected expense or job loss that causes them to reach for credit cards again.

  • Shed debt slowly, steadily. Debt experts, like weight-loss experts, recommend a slow, steady approach to vanquishing debt:
  • Don’t be in a rush to pay off low-rate mortgages and student loans. Focus first on toxic debt, such as credit cards, that erodes your financial security.
  • Aim to make lasting changes in the way you spend instead of trying quick fixes.

Make saving a priority even as you’re repaying debt. That means having at least a $500 emergency fund and contributing enough to get the full company match for workplace retirement accounts.