Everybody Lies. That’s the mantra from House, a simple but entertaining television show, whose premises are strangely applicable to personal finance. Recently, Liz Pulliam Weston evaluated a survey about consumer credit card debt that used a mistaken assumption to create misleading data about average household debt.
When a survey says 90% of Americans are either liars or in denial about how much they owe on credit cards, you can bet it’s the surveyors who are the delusional ones. In June, CreditCards.com released a GfK Roper poll that purported to detail Americans’ relationships with credit cards. The survey contained plenty of interesting tidbits, but the poll takers went aground when they tried asking how the respondents’ credit card debts compared to the national average.
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The survey started with the assumption that the average household owes $9,300. The surveyors then proceeded to ask respondents if they had less than $9,300 in credit card debt. When the good majority responded that they do in fact have less than that amount, the survey concluded that Americans are in denial or simply lying.
The problem is the $9,300 figure comes from a faulty or misunderstood study from CardWeb.com, which among other things, considers businesses in their end-of-the-year credit tally.
Well, for one, it’s irritating seeing a lie quoted in so many news stories, speeches and blog entries about credit card debt. Our national discussions about consumer indebtedness and bankruptcy are being distorted by the idea that we’re waddling around with four- and five-figure credit card debts.
The myth also gives false comfort to folks who think they’re “average” for having credit card debt, when they’re actually charging down the road to financial ruin. (Those folks are also the ones I’ll hear from after this column is published, by the way. Their arguments usually boil down to “I have credit card debt, so the myth must be true.”)
But mostly, the myth reflects badly on Americans. Most of us tell the truth, most of us aren’t in denial, and most of us aren’t nearly as stupid as some pollsters would like to think.
Liz also writes about how an “average” (mean) figure in populations with a high standard deviation can be relatively meaningless. If three three-year-old cousins spend the afternoon with their 85-year-old grandpa, you could say the average age of the four individuals is 23.5, but the number 23.5 is not representative of the four individuals in any way that’s relevant. It might be better to take Grandpa out of the calculation and focus on the average age of the children. Similarly, the CardWeb statistics include the year-end balances for those who pay their bill off every month. These are individuals who don’t carry credit, so they should not be included in the sample.
It’s very easy to simply trust numbers that are published in conjunction with a survey or scientific study, but that easily leads to misunderstandings. Misinformation can be distributed as easily as information throughout the world and applied to other data, as CreditCards.com did with this particular survey.
Now, here’s a question. Should people who play the 0% APR arbitrage game be included in statistics for credit card debt? They do hold the debt, but the debt was not obtained from a normal consumer action, like purchasing goods or services.
Photo: dan taylor
Updated October 21, 2015 and originally published July 31, 2007.