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For More Americans, It's Debt Till They Die

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Much has been said about widening income inequality, but you don't hear a lot about the gap that persists regarding who's in debt and who isn't.

More than one in five, or 21 percent, of Americans currently in a financial hole expect to still be in one when they die, according to survey released Wednesday by Creditcard.com. That's up from 18 percent a year ago, and 9 percent in 2013.

Yet as more Americans under water lose hope of ever coming up again, an increasing number (22 percent) live without any debt at all. That's up from 14 percent last year.

"The wealthier you are, the less likely you are to say you have no debt. You might have a mortgage or a car loan, but you're feeling good about your ability to handle it and get out of it eventually," Matt Schulz, CreditCards.com's senior analyst told CBS MoneyWatch. "Poorer folks may not be as likely to be in debt, but they are more likely to feel trapped by what debt they have."

Wealthier Americans have greater access to credit, while those with less access are more likely to be in a situation "where they have higher interest rates, or less consumer-friendly terms on cards or mortgages," Schulz said.

Those in credit card debt should consider calling their issuer and asking for a lower rate, advised Schulz, who cited previous research that found, "something like two-thirds who asked got their requests granted."

Balance transfers are another option, but consumers should educate themselves by reading the fine print. "It's easy to get drawn in by the zero percent headline number, but the truth is sometimes they have fees of 3 percent to 5 percent of the balance transfer," Schulz said. "That can make a good deal look a little less good, and can surprise some folks."

The poll of 1,004 adults was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International and took place over a four-day period, starting Nov. 19. Other findings:

  • The average age that Americans expect to be debt-free is 54 (including credit card debt, car loans, student loans, mortgages, etc.).
  • Among those in debt, about half (48 percent) said they'll remain in debt until 61 or later.
  • Republicans are almost twice as likely as Democrats to expect to die in debt, with 25 percent of those aligning with the GOP anticipating never being able to dig out from their financial hole, versus 14 percent of Democrats.
  • About one in four (24 percent) of white Americans said they'll never get out of debt versus 16 percent of minorities.
  • Debt-ridden millennials are more optimistic about their finances than any other age group: Only 11 percent said they'll never be debt-free.
  • People with no children are more likely to say they'll never get out of debt than parents are (23 percent to 17 percent).

© 2015 CBS Interactive Inc.. All Rights Reserved.

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