If you want to know how much credit card debt Americans have, don’t ask the borrowers. For years, economists have sought debt data from both borrowers and lenders for credit card debt and four other debt categories. Borrowers report their debt balances by responding to household surveys, like the Survey of Consumer Finances. Lenders report debt to the credit reporting bureaus such as Equifax.
Relying on self-reported information for studies is always a risky approach if you’re planning to make any scientific assumptions based on the data. Everybody lies. Or, in some cases, people think they know the answer to a question about how or why they do something, but the truth remain undetected. Asking a population of consumers if they will transfer all their money from a big bank to a credit union will always result in overstating the number, as people tend to respond as if they were their ideal versions of themselves. Surely, a quantifiable question such as their debt balances shouldn’t be subject to this kind of error.
In fact, for most types of credit card debt, the self-reported balances match the issuer-reported balances. In only one category is there a discrepancy: credit cards.
Binyamin Applebaum from the Economix Blog explores some of the possible reasons that consumers misreport credit card debt. Among the possibilities:
Most of the other debt categories reported, such as student loans and home mortgages, tend to be socially acceptable. A consumer who feels embarrassed about a behavior or a state of being, there’s a chance he or she will be less willing to report it on a survey. Personal bankruptcies, on the other hand, could also be embarrassing, but households report them correctly.
The study comparing the two debt reporting approaches show that single people report their credit card accurately while households do not. Household surveys are generally answered by only one person within the household, and that person may not be aware of the other person’s debt, even if the family has chosen to combine accounts.
If someone were to ask me how much credit card debt I have, I’d say I have none. My latest balance sheet (net worth report) shows that is false. At the end of each month, I have a balance on my credit cards. I pay my credit card balance in full every month before it is due, but a snapshot on any date would show that I have a balance. People like me might report that they have no credit card debt, particularly if the question is not explained well on the survey. The issuers see it differently. They report a balance to the credit bureaus even if the issuers expect (or would expect if they note patterns) the borrower to pay in full.
When correcting for these issues, the researchers who conducted the study comparing the two reporting techniques still couldn’t explain the remaining discrepancy. Issuers reported more than twice the amount of credit card debt borrowers reported. The only possible conclusion is that people just don’t know how much they owe on credit cards. The study concludes that “uninformedness” is the problem. People just don’t know how much credit card debt they have, even if statements make this information easily accessible, at least on a monthly basis.
Two important steps in taking control of your finances are to take an inventory, finding where you stand in every financial account including debt, and to track your money, knowing how much is coming in and going out, and when these changes happen.
Do you know how much credit card debt you have? Do you think it matches what your credit card issuers say you have?
Published or updated October 25, 2011.