Top 5 Reasons Why People Go Bankrupt

Job loss, medical bills, and mortgage debt are among the reasons people go bankrupt

Generally, more than one factor will contribute to a situation that causes someone to file for bankruptcy. Irresponsible financial behavior such as taking on too much debt is often a factor, but other circumstances can also lead to a situation where someone chooses to file for bankruptcy.

Key Takeaways

  • A combination of financial setbacks can drive someone to file for bankruptcy.
  • Factors that contribute to financial struggles can be either poor decisions or other circumstances that cannot be controlled.
  • Job loss, medical expenses, and escalating mortgage payments are among the common reasons people file for bankruptcy.
  • Overspending can also contribute to a situation that forces someone to file for bankruptcy.
Top Reasons Why People Go Bankrupt

Investopedia / Candra Huff

Five Major Reasons for Bankruptcy

There are a number of studies of why people file for bankruptcy, some due to poor financial choices and others due to circumstances beyond their control. Common reasons that people file for bankruptcy include loss of income, high medical expenses, an unaffordable mortgage, spending beyond their means, or lending money to loved ones. Often, a bankruptcy is a result of several of these factors combined.

1. Loss of Income

As many Americans live paycheck to paycheck, losing a job and a source of regular income can cause significant financial strain. A 2019 Charles Schwab survey found that 59% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck.

Losing your job can also mean losing your health insurance, making you especially vulnerable to big medical bills unless you can find other insurance in the meantime.

2. Medical Expenses

Medical expenses are another major factor contributing to bankruptcy. Medical problems can also lead to job loss in some cases. Or, if you've lost your job and your insurance, and then suffer medical problems, you could also face financial strain.

There are several programs intended to help people who lose their jobs keep their health insurance. COBRA is a federal law that allows many laid-off workers to stay on their ex-employer’s insurance plan for a period of time. However, COBRA requires the employee to pay both their share and their employer’s former share of the insurance cost, plus an administrative fee, making it unaffordable for many people, especially when they’re out of work.

3. Unaffordable Mortgage/Foreclosure

Home mortgages are typically the largest portion of household debt in the United States, far surpassing credit cards, car loans, student debt, and all other categories. At the end of 2019, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, housing-related debt, which includes both mortgages and home-equity lines of credit, accounted for roughly 70% of household debt in the U.S.

Lenders can sometimes approve a buyer for a larger loan than they can afford to pay. People who accept these loans are at risk of losing their home to foreclosure if they don't make the payments. They may lose their job or facing some other financial setback.

Some mortgages have adjustable rates, which means the homeowner's monthly payments can rise if interest rates rise. If a borrower suddenly faces a higher mortgage payment that they cannot afford to pay, they may be forced to file for bankruptcy.

4. Overspending

Overspending or living beyond your means can quickly result in unmanageable debt. If a borrower maxes out their credit cards buying unnecessary items, and then cannot afford to make the minimum monthly payments, they can see their debt quickly snowball with interest costs.

To minimize the risk of overspending, create a budget that ensures income is greater than expenses. You can also work toward saving an emergency fund of several months' worth of expenses. This can help you cover an unexpected expense without having to go into debt.

5. Providing Financial Assistance

Sometimes, the need to provide assistance to relatives or others can be a factor in contributing to a situation that leads someone to file for bankruptcy.

Whether they are providing support to adult children or providing support to aging parents, people may find it difficult to decline financial assistance to a family member in need.

Other Reasons for Bankruptcy

Of course, there are many other reasons people file for bankruptcy. For example, some may have burdensome student loan debts. Although student loan debt is difficult to discharge in bankruptcy, many people might file for bankruptcy to eradicate other debt so they can afford their other student loan payments.

Other people may face financial strain as a result of divorce or separation, which can be costlywith legal fees.

Does Bankruptcy Clear All Debt?

Bankruptcy often clears your debt so you can start fresh with your finances, but it does not necessarily clear all debt. Debt that may not be cleared in bankruptcy includes alimony, child support, taxes fines, and student loans.

What Is the Downside of Bankruptcy?

Bankruptcy has the advantage of helping your start fresh with your finances, but a bankruptcy will have a negative impact on your credit score. A bankruptcy can stay on your credit history for up to 10 years.

Can You File for Bankruptcy While Getting a DIvorce?

You can file for bankruptcy any time, but during a divorce only one court process will occur at a time. Consider whether you want to file for a bankruptcy before or after a divorce.

The Bottom Line

Filing for bankruptcy can provide relief to people who are strained beyond their means with their debt. A number of factors can contribute to a situation where you may have to file for bankruptcy. To help avoid bankruptcy, you can take steps to stay in good financial health such as only taking on an amount of debt you can afford to repay and essentially spending below your means.


Article Sources
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  1. Charles Schwab. "Modern Wealth Survey, May 2019," Page 7.

  2. U.S. Department of Labor. "Continuation of Health Coverage."

  3. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. "A Snapshot of Record-High U.S. Household Debt."

  4. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "An Essential Guide to Building an Emergency Fund."

  5. "Discharge in Bankruptcy."

  6. United States Bankruptcy Court. "Bankruptcy and Your Credit."

  7. Experian. "How to Handle Bankruptcy and Divorce at the Same Time."

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