Many Americans Are Borrowing to Pay for Basic Expenses

A new NerdWallet survey finds that the average personal loan has grown over the last year, with close to a third of borrowers trying to pay for necessities.
Andrew Marder
By Andrew Marder 
Edited by Kim Lowe

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MORE LIKE THISPersonal Loans

From 2022 to 2023, the size of the average personal loan taken out in the previous 12 months by those who got one from a financial institution rose 25%, from $5,046 to $6,299, according to a new NerdWallet survey. The increase was driven by a jump in average loan size among millennials, ages 27-42, (up 78%, from $3,305 to $5,891) and Gen Xers, ages 43-58, (up 45%, from $5,276 to $7,668).

Younger generations were more likely to have borrowed using a personal loan, with millennials topping the list at almost 1 in 2 (48%) taking out a loan in the previous 12 months, followed by Gen Zers, ages 18-26, (39%), Gen Xers (38%) and baby boomers, ages 59-77, (13%).

The 2023 survey, conducted online by The Harris Poll over the period Sept. 7-11, 2023, among over 2,000 U.S. adults ages 18 and older, also found divisions in how generational cohorts view borrowing for nonessentials as well as how they perceive the role of personal loans in their financial plans.

Key takeaways

  • Many borrowers take out a personal loan just to make ends meet. A third (33%) of recent borrowers (i.e., those who took out a personal loan in the past 12 months) say they took out a loan to cover basic expenses, like food and utilities.

  • Younger Americans have a more favorable view of “buy now, pay later” (BNPL) loans. More than half of both Gen Zers (56%) and millennials (59%) agree that BNPL loans are, in general, a smart way to make purchases. Agreement drops to 40% of Gen Xers and 24% of boomers.

  • Americans are divided on borrowing for nonessential purchases. Two-thirds (67%) of Americans say borrowing for nonessentials (things other than food, shelter, etc.) is irresponsible. Revealing an age gap, just 55% of Gen Zers agree, though 74% of boomers do.

Personal loans used for survival — and splurging

Borrowers took out personal loans for a variety of reasons, but covering basic expenses topped the list. Around 1 in 3 Americans (33%) who took a loan out in the last 12 months say they did so in part to cover things like utilities, food and clothing.

Vehicle repairs (27%), home repairs or improvements (25%) and debt consolidation (20%) rounded out the top four reasons for taking out a loan. Debt consolidation was the second most popular option for older cohorts, with Gen Xers (27%) and boomers (21%) both ranking it just behind everyday expenses.

On the other end of the spectrum, younger borrowers were more likely to say they've borrowed for nonessential purchases like vacations and items they wanted but couldn't afford. They are also more likely to borrow to pay for nonmedical emergencies and for purchases related to their work.

Rounding things out, about 1 in 5 borrowers (18%) say they took out their loan to pay for medical costs not covered by their insurance. Around 1 in 6 (16%) took out the loan to pay for health and wellness services (like gym memberships or therapy) and 15% took out the loan to finance the purchase of a vehicle.

Making smart borrowing decisions

Choosing the right way to borrow can make a huge impact on how much you ultimately pay and whether you're able to keep up with your debt. Companies that offer buy now, pay later for smaller purchases often don't charge interest, which can help keep payments lower than if using a credit card. Consolidating high-interest credit cards into a lower-rate personal loan can save hundreds of dollars over the life of the loan.

“The key with a debt consolidation loan is to get a lower rate than you’re currently paying,” says NerdWallet personal loans writer Annie Millerbernd. “By doing that, you’re reducing the total interest cost on your debt.”

You can also make sure your budget accounts for repaying any borrowing you've already done. That can help you balance your monthly spending and make more informed choices when you're shopping for those nonessentials.

Americans' borrowing beliefs vary by age group

We found generational divides to be fairly common in attitudes toward borrowing. Generally, younger generations are more open to the use of loans for nonessential purchases and see loans as an important part of their financial plans.

Asked if they agree with the statement, "Personal loans are an important part of my financial planning," 45% of Gen Zers and 51% of millennials agree. Around 3 in 10 Gen Xers (29%) and just about 1 in 7 boomers (14%) agree.

There was a similar divide surrounding buy now, pay later loans. Just over half of Gen Zers (56%) and a similar portion (59%) of millennials say BNPL loans are, in general, a smart way to make purchases. Agreement falls to 2 in 5 Gen Xers (40%) and just 24% of boomers.

When we asked Americans how they feel about borrowing for nonessentials, two-thirds (67%) say borrowing for nonessentials is irresponsible. That's a sentiment most common among boomers, with around three-quarters (74%) agreeing. Boomers were also the least likely (1%) to say they took out a loan to make a purchase they wanted but couldn't afford (Gen Z, 23%; millennials, 25%; and Gen X, 8%).

That division in attitude was mirrored when we asked specifically about using loans to pay for vacations or health and wellness services. Around 2 in 5 Gen Zers (38%) and millennials (44%) agree that loans are a good way to pay for vacations. A quarter (27%) of Gen Xers felt the same way, along with just 16% of boomers.

Paying for health and wellness services (like gyms and spirituality classes) with a loan seems worth it to around 3 in 5 Gen Zers (60%) and millennials (58%). That falls to around 2 in 5 Gen Xers (38%) and just 29% of boomers.

How to be a responsible borrower

Responsibility and familiarity with financial products can affect what options are the right fit for a borrower. A loan presented to a 24-year-old with a part-time job and little borrowing experience may be a poor fit, but that same offer may be just right for a 22-year-old working full time.

When considering a loan, a good first step is to assess your existing budget and whether there’s room for monthly loan payments. It can also pay to check your credit and do what you can to elevate your score. Borrowers with strong credit receive the lowest rates on personal loans.

Compare multiple options for borrowing, whether it’s a personal loan from an online lender or a shorter-term buy now, pay later loan.

Finally, it's important to understand how much you'll ultimately be repaying and over what period that payment will need to be made. By comparing types of loans and their costs, borrowers can be sure they're selecting the best possible loan for their financial situations.

“Research is your best friend when you’re about to borrow money,” Millerbernd says. “Ask yourself whether you’ll have enough money when the payment comes due to make it on time and whether you can get a more affordable loan elsewhere.”

Loans spur a mix of emotions, from high to low

Borrowing comes with a range of emotions, from the elation of getting a mortgage to buy a first home to the fear of paying off a large hospital bill on credit.

About 2 in 5 borrowers (41%) say they're planning to repay their loan earlier than they're required to. Conversely, 14% of borrowers say they're not sure how they'll be able to repay their loans. That's a worry more common with Gen Z borrowers. Close to a quarter (23%) say they're not sure how they'll be able to pay back their loan.

Around 1 in 4 borrowers (28%) say taking out their loan was a last resort. That's a sentiment common across generations (27% of Gen Zers, 26% of millennials and 29% of Gen Xers).

Shame showed up more for younger borrowers. Around 1 in 4 Gen Z borrowers (26%) say they felt ashamed to have to take out their loan, compared to 19% of millennials and 12% of Gen X borrowers.

Younger consumers were also more likely to say they felt their lender charged them a higher interest rate for their loan because they were desperate borrowers. About 1 in 5 Gen Z borrowers (21%) and millennial borrowers (22%) expressed that feeling, while just 1 in 10 Gen X borrowers (9%) say the same thing.

Around 1 in 4 borrowers (23%) say their loan allowed them to buy something that made them happy, which they wouldn't have been able to purchase without a loan. Younger generations were more likely to agree with that sentiment (Gen Z, 28%; and millennials, 27%).

Where to find help

Financial advisors (55%) topped the list of sources when we asked who Americans would trust to give them advice on personal loans. Friends and family came next (46%), and Gen Z Americans put it at the top of their list with 3 in 5 (60%) saying they trusted those in that group.

About 2 in 5 Americans (39%) say bank representatives were a trustworthy source, though just about a quarter (26%) trusted bank websites and personal finance websites/apps (25%). Business partners (12%), media personalities who hand out financial advice (8%) and coworkers (8%) filled in most of the back half.

The very bottom of the trust barrel belongs to social media influencers (7%), though there's a generational divide. Gen Zers (17%) and millennials (14%) were more likely than either Gen Xers (3%) or boomers (1%) to trust such influencers.

Finding trusted help

Personal loans are just that — personal. Depending on your comfort with borrowing and the amount you need, there are many different options available to you. Just because you may have taken out your last loan from your primary bank doesn't mean it'll be the best spot for your next loan.

Consumers with low credit scores may need to do additional digging to find reputable lending sources and avoid predatory lending that takes advantage of those in tight spots.

“Many lenders let you pre-qualify to check your rate with no hard credit check, which is a huge advantage for borrowers, because if you don’t like one lender’s offer, there are plenty more to try out before you apply,” Millerbernd says.


This survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of NerdWallet from Sept. 7-11, 2023, among 2,049 U.S. adults ages 18 and older, among whom 588 have taken out a personal loan in the past 12 months. The sampling precision of Harris online polls is measured using a Bayesian credible interval. For this study, the sample data is accurate to within +/- 2.7 percentage points using a 95% confidence level. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables and subgroup sample sizes, please contact [email protected].

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