Published in: Research | Dec. 31, 2019

What is the Average Credit Card Debt in the U.S.?

By:  Lyle Daly

If you made a list of the biggest personal finance problems Americans have, credit card debt would be near the top. It reached an all-time high of $870 billion at the end of 2018. And, after several years of decreases, delinquencies are on the rise again.

We wanted to know whether overall credit card debt had gone down since the end of the 2008 financial crisis or if it got worse as consumers gained more disposable income. After analyzing the numbers, we’ve found that it’s a little of both.

Summary of key findings

  • While average credit card debt is lower overall than its peak in the financial crisis, it has been gradually increasing since 2015.
  • The United States recorded $870 billion in total credit card debt in the fourth quarter of 2018, exceeding the previous record high set in 2008.
  • The percentage of consumers with a credit card decreased during the financial crisis and bottomed out in 2012. Since then, it has steadily increased.
  • The rate of serious credit card delinquencies has gone up a small amount since 2014, but it’s still much lower than it was a decade ago.

Average credit card debt in America

Average credit card debt fell steadily from 2008 to 2013, coinciding with the United States’ recovery from the 2008 financial crisis. The biggest dip occurred between the fourth quarters of 2009 and 2010, when it decreased by 7.2%.

After reaching a low point in 2013 and remaining low until the end of 2015, credit card balances started inching back up, particularly from the fourth quarters of 2015 to 2016 (when the average increased by 2.8%) and 2016 to 2017 (an increase of 2.9%).

Based on these numbers, it appears that consumer confidence has increased with the growth of the economy and that consumers are more comfortable borrowing money. With the exception of 0% APR cards, credit cards' high interest rates make it a bad idea to borrow money this way.

Total U.S. credit card debt

The total U.S. credit card debt tells almost the same story as the average debt.

After peaking at $866 billion in the fourth quarter of 2008, there are substantial annual decreases of 8.2% in each of the next two years. This was during the depths of the financial crisis, so many consumers had to rein in their borrowing. After two more years of decreases, total debt bottoms out at $679 million.

Since then, consumers have been racking up more credit card debt, with increases of 4.7%, 6.3%, 7.1%, and 4.3% yearly from 2014 to 2018.

The $870 billion of total credit card debt in the fourth quarter of 2018 also tops the previous highest total on record in 2008.

Percentage of consumers with a credit card

The percentage of consumers who have at least one credit card dropped significantly from 2008 to 2012. It went down by nine percentage points over those four years, although the biggest drop was seen between 2008 and 2009.

While one obvious reason for this was the financial crisis, another important factor was the Credit CARD Act of 2009. This Act prohibits credit card companies from issuing cards to applicants under the age of 21 unless they have cosigners or verifiable independent income. It also prohibits credit card companies from sending offers to anyone under 21 unless they consent to receive those communications.

In every age group, the percentage of consumers with credit cards decreased from 2008 to 2012, but the fall was most noticeable among those aged 20 to 29. Approximately 53% of those young adults had credit cards in 2008, compared to only 41% in 2012, likely in part due to those new restrictions.

Since 2012, credit card ownership has been moving upwards across every age group. Once again, the group with the largest differential is the 20-to-29-year-olds, as 52% of them had a credit card by 2018.

Percentage of credit card balances that are seriously delinquent

With credit card delinquencies, the amount of time the bill has been past due matters. At 30 days, a delinquency can affect a cardholder’s credit score. At 60, it may result in a higher penalty APR. But it’s at 90 days past due when the debt is considered seriously delinquent. At that point, the credit card company may freeze the option to make payments.

For serious credit card delinquencies over the last 10 years, the outlook is mostly positive. After reaching a high of 13.7% in the first and second quarters of 2010, the percentage of credit card balances that are seriously delinquent had dropped to 7.1% by the end of 2016, a decrease of almost 50%.

There may still be cause for concern, though, because the total amount of seriously delinquent credit card debt has been ticking back up. In the fourth quarter of 2016, there was $55.31 billion in seriously delinquent credit card debt. Owing to the growth in both total credit card debt and the delinquency rate, that number has risen to $67.86 billion two years later.

New seriously delinquent credit card balances also increased in that time frame. It was 3.7% at the end of 2016, 4.6% in 2017, and 5.0% in 2018.

These are relatively small increases and could represent a temporary jump like the one that occurred in 2015. However, combined with the fact that total credit card debt is climbing, this increase in serious delinquencies is a cause for concern. It could indicate that consumers are overextending themselves and starting to have trouble paying their bills.

Key takeaways

Credit card debt statistics in America show some signs of trouble, primarily due to the amounts that consumers are charging to their cards. Not only has the average balance been rising, but the total nationwide credit card debt is as high as it has ever been.

The good news is that serious delinquency rates have remained relatively low, but that’s due, in part, to a strong economy. If we have any sort of recession, those larger credit card balances could become a serious burden for consumers and cause delinquency rates to rise.

Sources

  1. Federal Reserve Bank of New York (Nov 2019). "Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit, 2019: Q3."
  2. Haughwout, Andrew F., et al. (May 2019). Liberty Street Economics. "Just Released: Shifts in Credit Market Participation over Two Decades."
  3. Komos, Matt (Dec 2017). TransUnion. "2018 Predictions: Consumer Credit, Balance and Delinquency Rates."
  4. TransUnion (Feb 2019). "FinTechs Continue to Drive Personal Loan Growth."

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