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Fun and Terrifying Facts About the National Debt

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The United States Federal Government National Debt sits just over $16 trillion. That’s $16,000,000,000,000. At current rates and assuming no changes, the debt will grow to $22.5 trillion by 2016.

We thought it would be interesting to find some “fun” and truly terrifying facts about the national debt. A lot of numbers get thrown out by pundits all of the time, but when you’re talking about trillions and trillions of dollars it can be easy to just have your eyes glaze over. Maybe these facts will wake you up a little bit.

US National Debt Fun Facts

Here are some interesting facts about our national debt that may both intrigue and scare you.

Last Time US Was Debt-Free

National Debt Clock - Facts and Figures

The national debt has grown almost 60% in the 4 years since this image was taken in Dec. 2008

The very last time the United States Federal government was completely debt-free was January 8, 1835. Andrew Jackson was President and to say he didn’t like banks and debt would be an understatement. NPR has a fascinating article about how Jackson paid off the national debt and what happened afterwards.

As Percentage of GDP

National debt as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is over 100%. Some estimates show this to have happened in 2010 when Congress raised the debt ceiling. GDP is the market value of all goods and services produced within a country in a given year. That means if you made and sold everything in the United States for one year, it would eliminate the debt.

Combined GDPs From Other Countries

If you take all of the countries in the world and rank them by GDP using International Monetary Fund data, the United States is ranked #1 only dwarfed by all of the European Union (and only barely).

Using that same data, if you take countries #14 (Mexico) through #50 (Kazakhstan) and combine all of their GDPs it still isn’t enough to cover the national debt. Other countries included in that list? South Korea, Saudia Arabia, Norway, and Ireland.

Debt Per Person

If you assume the US population currently sits at about 311 million people. If you divide the national debt by the total population — men, women, and children — the total debt comes to about $51,500 per person. Zoinks.

To put this in perspective, here is more information about how much debt an average American holds on an individual basis.

Danger of Paying Off the Debt

NPR’s Planet Money got a secret government report in 2011 that analyzed the good, bad, and the ugly of the US paying off the national debt. The report is from 2000, but the premise is still the same. There was a time when we were running a surplus and the idea of being able to pay off the debt was a very real one. This sounds great, but would also cause massive problems in the financial industry because it would mean there would no longer be any US Treasury Bonds available to invest in.

The Biggest Creditor

Many reports put China as essentially being America’s banker, constantly lending us more and more money.

That’s not true at all. Sure, China is the largest foreign government that holds US debt, but they aren’t even close to being largest creditor.

That title belongs to the citizens of the United States. This great chart (from September 2011) shows the following creditors to the national debt:

  • US Individuals and Institutions: 41.7%
  • Social Security Trust Fund: 17.1%
  • All Other Foreign Nations Combined: 13.2%
  • China: 9.3%
  • Japan: 6.7%
  • US Civil Service Retirement Fund: 5.8%

On paper, it sounds like a great idea to pay off the National Debt. But in practice it might not be such a good idea. What are your thoughts on the National Debt?

National Debt sourceNational Debt Clock image credit: korafotomorgana


Published or updated October 12, 2012.
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