We all know that Americans have more debt now than they did decades ago. In our consumer-driven culture, buying new gadgets, clothes, and other "must-have" items has been made quite easy with credit cards. The college-for-all culture has also encouraged many young people go take on thousands of dollars in student loans. And of course, there was the housing bubble. But how much more debt do Americans have now than they have historically? The numbers are pretty incredible.
It's hard to find an all-in number for the debt Americans hold, but the Federal Reserve provides a monthly tally of non-real estate consumer debt. So this doesn't include mortgages, home equity loans, federal and municipal debt, or corporate debt, but it's a start.
In order to compare apples to apples, you need to take population and inflation into account. That's also an imperfect science, since exact statistics are hard to come by. But the following graph is a good approximation. It shows non-real estate consumer debt per capita for non-institutional civilians over the age of 16 (using Bureau of Labor Statistics data), adjusted for inflation (using Consumer Price Index data from BLS):
This chart should be startling. It shows that total debt has increased from around $1,186 per person in 1948 to $10,168 in 2010. And remember, that's using 2010 dollars -- and it doesn't include real estate debt either like mortgages or home equity loans. This debt includes credit cards, auto loans, student loans, personal loans, and other non-real estate consumer debt.