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How is the Country REALLY Doing With Its Credit Card Debt?

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National averages for credit card and other consumer debt can be a good barometer of consumers’ financial capacity and goals. For instance, when debt decreases, Americans, as a whole, may be spending less and saving more. Of course, that’s a good thing.

So, when SmartAsset released its average credit card debt study recently, we took notice. The survey looked at median individual income and credit card data from 2006 to 2016. It even broke down the data by state!

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What did the survey find? Here are some of the topline results and what they might mean for consumers like you:

Americans were dropping credit card debt… but now they’re reversing that trend.

The data show that from 2006 to 2015, the average total credit card debt went from about $3,175 per person to $2,800 per person. Total credit card debt dropped — in every region except Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. — during this time period.

What does that 11.6% decrease mean? It’s hard to say exactly. But it could have been a result of the financial crisis, and people understanding how dangerous credit card debt can be during a time of personal financial upheaval.

During this time, though, there was a peak in the average credit card debt. In 2008, the average debt was $3,670, and the average American had debt equal to about 14% of their annual income! From that high point, we started cutting back on credit card debt quickly and efficiently. This is definitely a good thing.

So for several years, Americans were dropping debt at a significant rate. But then, a new trend happened.

The average credit card debt bottomed out at $2,730 in 2014, bouncing back up to $2,800 in 2015. Over this same time period, the total national credit card debt rose from $733 billion to $799 billion. So, is this the new normal?

It’s hard to say. But the report speculates that the Great Recession incentivized Americans to lower their credit card debt. But once the recession turned around, Americans seem to have forgotten the struggle and gone back to their old ways… taking on significant amounts of credit card debt.

What does it mean for consumers?

Boiling complex statistics, in a survey like this one, down to a few talking points is risky. The challenge is to avoid reading too much into the results. With that said, I think there are a few lessons that financially savvy consumers could take away from this study.

 

It’s all too easy to go back to bad habits.

What we see here in these trends is that, when given a big enough push, Americans are capable of buckling down and paying off debt. In some states, credit card debt levels shrunk by 30% or more, during and right after the Great Recession!

Necessity tends to breed discipline, in finances as in everything else. But when that necessity is no longer spurring you on, what happens? It’s way too easy to go back to former bad habits.

Time will tell whether the recent uptick in debt levels is a trend that will continue. But it does show that once the worst of the crisis is over, people may be willing to slide back to where they were before.

If you really want to change your habits, whether in the realm of personal finance, your health, or elsewhere, you have to keep going. And that means even after the crisis that spurred your change has passed!

 

We should all be prepared for the worst, at any time.

If consumers had known beforehand that the Great Recession was coming, do you think they would have had thousands of dollars in credit card debt lying around? For many, probably not!

It’s easy to live large when things are good, and not to worry too much about things like credit card debt. After all, you can afford the payments, so what’s the big deal? The problem is that you never know what’s just around the bend.

Illness, stock market crashes, job loss, and other disasters can strike at any time. While you don’t want to live in a doom-and-gloom mindset, it’s best to be prepared. And, financially, this means being as debt-free as possible and having emergency savings available.

 

Focusing on staying out of credit card debt is still important.

Personal finance blogs like this one have been around for decades now, but many people still need to go back to the basics. One of those basics is the importance of paying off credit card debt.

Sure, sometimes taking on credit card debt can be justified. But it’s important to pay it off as quickly and efficiently as possible. Otherwise, you run the risk of trying to pay down such debt while you’re already in the middle of a crisis.

So, what’s your story from the Great Recession? Did your credit card debt go down? Are you letting it slide back up again? Tell us in the comments.

Updated June 3, 2017 and originally published April 20, 2017.

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