Spending Epidemic: Struggling to Beat Debt

Erin Browne is only 27 but she is already living under a mountain of debt with a $130,000 mortgage and $50,000 in student loans.

"I had immense amounts of debt leaving school. I had student loans and credit card debt and I have sort of been working the past four or five years just to get out of that hole," Browne said.

But, Browne admits that she still likes to shop, especially for jeans. She already has 22 pairs and says she keeps buying more. Like many Americans, she can't stop spending.

America's 'Consumption Ethic'

In the last decade, while the average family's income grew by 9 percent, credit card debt has increased 81 percent; student loan debt is up 137 percent and mortgage debt jumped 154 percent.

"We used to have a savings ethic in the country, which seems to have turned into a consumption ethic," said Robert Bixby, executive director of The Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group that campaigns for fiscal responsibility.

So, why does Browne's grandmother pinch pennies, while she struggles not to buy her 23rd pair of jeans?

Some of these habits are generational -- Americans who came of age during the Great Depression seem less likely to be spendthrifts than those born in post-war prosperity.

But Baylor University marketing professor Jim Roberts says overspending is also part of our culture. "We are constantly bombarded with advertising messages that happiness can be purchased at the mall, or on the Internet, or from a catalog," Roberts said.

What's more, over-spending has never been easier. The Internet makes it possible to shop 24 hours a day and almost anything can be bought on credit, regardless of one's ability to pay.

"Technology, cars, homes, vacations, private school education for our children, there's no end to it," Roberts said.

Psychologist Olivia Mellan believes Americans also overspend because saving for college or retirement seems futile.

"Many people do feel defeated and they just close their eyes and lie down and say, let's forget about this, I'll never be able to have what I want," said Mellan, author of "Overcoming Overspending."

That's certainly how Erin Browne feels. She said saving later is her plan.

"Absolutely, especially the retirement plan," Browne said.

The result is that many Americans are now arriving at retirement age with an average of $60,000 in savings including their IRAs and their 401ks. That is not nearly enough to pay for a retirement that could easily last 20 or 30 years.

Watch "World News Tonight" tomorrow for the conclusion of our spending series, taking a look at the consequences of the enormous gap between savings and future financial needs.