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2009: The Year Borrowers Got a Clue

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For years, borrowers have seemed to make all the wrong moves. Yet just as the financial crisis threatened access to the credit that many borrowers had taken advantage of for years, many people started doing something completely unexpected: They got smarter with their money. Now, there are increasingly encouraging signs that fiscal responsibility may be a trend that lasts beyond the end of the recession.

Paying it off
One of these signs comes from the credit card market. It's no secret that credit card issuers depend on those who carry a balance from month to month; most of the time, they earn substantial profits from the high interest rates they charge while keeping their losses from card delinquencies under control.

This year, though, losses related to credit card lending have gone through the roof at major card-issuing banks. Earlier this month, Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) reported that its card division had written off its credit card loans at over a 10% annualized rate in November. Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) clocked in at a staggering 13%, while JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM  ) saw an 8.8% charge-off rate, and Capital One Financial's (NYSE: COF  ) figure rose to 9.6%. Such high losses threaten the overall profits that credit cards produce.

But in an interesting twist, customers appear to be interested in giving up their traditional credit cards in exchange for non-revolving charge cards. Long offered by American Express (NYSE: AXP  ) , these cards don't allow you to carry a balance; you must pay the entire amount due at the end of each month. In addition, there are no overdraft fees. Recently, Chase announced a new entry into the charge-card market, and AmEx has created a charge card marketed to young adults.

You might wonder why anyone would use a charge card. After all, there's nothing forcing you to carry a balance with a regular credit card; you can always pay off your bill in full each month. But for whatever reason, customers seem willing to pay annual fees as well as late fees that can sometimes be higher than a regular credit card in exchange for the additional discipline that charge cards impose. It may not be the most efficient way to reduce debt, but if it works as an extra incentive, then it's a good thing.

The end of the refi ATM
Just a few years ago, homeowners took every opportunity they could to take additional money out of their homes in the form of mortgage refinancings and home equity loans. Once the housing market's game of musical chairs finally stopped, however, homeowners found that their equity quickly disappeared, leaving them with a serious hangover of debt.

As another sign of how far we've come, the Mortgage Bankers Association reported that 15-year fixed mortgages have started to become increasingly popular among those taking advantage of current low rates to refinance. Applications for 15-year loans rose to close to 20% in October, well above the typical single-digit figures that have prevailed in past years. Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC  ) reported 15-year loan originations up 55% from year-ago levels.

Typically, borrowers have been reluctant to choose 15-year mortgages over their more popular 30-year counterparts. Even though the interest rates on 15-year mortgages are typically lower -- right now, Freddie Mac (NYSE: FRE  ) reports that you can save more than half a percentage point if you borrow for 15 years than for 30 -- the faster repayment schedule means significantly higher monthly payments.

Yet for many, historically low interest rates offset much of the higher payments that result, giving them the chance to pay down their mortgage that much faster. And although some argue that you can get better returns in the stock market, it's clear that households are unwilling to leverage their personal balance sheets in the wake of Wall Street's leverage-driven meltdown.

Just the beginning
There's plenty of work left for borrowers to do to get their finances in shape. But as a first step, 2009 has given many who struggle with debt something they haven't seen in a long time: the hope that they can dig themselves out of debt and get back on their financial feet again.

Once you're out of debt, you can focus on your next goal: becoming a millionaire. Let Chuck Saletta show you three easy steps to $1 million.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger is an endless optimist when it comes to credit, so he hopes his fellow borrowers won't let him down. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. American Express is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool's disclosure policy gives full credit for making the right decisions with your money.

Read/Post Comments (4) | Recommend This Article (4)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On December 23, 2009, at 1:10 PM, plange01 wrote:

    in spite of a lot of recent publicity it is still very unlikely ford will survive through 2010.the now 11 month old depression in the US is getting worse by the day as seen in the the rise of unemployment,bankruptcys,inflation and energy is doing far better than GM and chrysler with both of them sure to close in the next 6 months or less..

  • Report this Comment On December 23, 2009, at 6:28 PM, Viking70 wrote:

    Let's hope the trend of iscal responsibiliy continues. It is the silver lining of the recession (well, other than being able to buy stocks dirt cheap).

  • Report this Comment On December 25, 2009, at 7:31 PM, Gorm wrote:

    It is all a matter of discipline with options. It is always nice to have a fallback position. Find the best 30 year mortgage you can afford but amortize over a 15 year term. If circumstances change, you can fallback to the lower 30 year payment - just when no one would refinance your mortgage.

    Yes, you give up the rate difference but that is the insurance cost for that fallback protection.

  • Report this Comment On December 26, 2009, at 1:22 PM, JavaChipFool wrote:

    Gorm is right on. And what stocks are still "dirt cheap" that are worth buying?

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