Tom: Good morning Mellody! What are we covering today?
Mellody: Good morning. Today we are talking about credit card debt, Tom. Over the past 6 years, in the wake of the great recession, many Americans made progress paying down credit cards and reining in irresponsible spending. But a recent study suggests we may be reverting to old habits. The study, from Cardhub, found the pace of progress over the past few years is starting to slow as people ignore the lessons learned in tougher economic times.
Tom: What did the study tell us?
Mellody: At first glance, some of the numbers look very positive. The study found that U.S. consumers paid off almost $35 billion in credit card debt in the first quarter of this year. That is more than the first quarter of 2014. Another positive sign was an increase in payments. Americans increased their credit card payments by 7% in the first quarter year-over-year.
But if you dig a little deeper, you find that we still have a long way to go. The study showed that American credit card debt is ticking up again. In the first quarter of 2015, average household credit card debt rose to the highest figure in six years: $7,177 per household. This is the first sign that consumers are forgetting the hard-learned lessons from the great recession.
Tom: What are the other signs?
Mellody: Americans still owe over $830 billion in outstanding credit card debt, and Cardhub estimates that consumers will add nearly $56 billion in new debt this year. So, even while consumers increased their payments and paid down $35 billion debt in this year’s first quarter – a period when debt typically gets reduced as people use their to 2014 bonuses and tax refunds to pay down debt – that number is at least partially a result of ballooning levels of debt load rather than a newfound commitment to financial responsibility in the country.
This becomes even clearer when you consider that Americans have actually increased their collective credit card debt load every year since 2009. And even in 2009, outstanding debt only declined by $875 million, or less than 1 percent. All of this is to say that still consumers have a long way to go, and have to work to improve debt-management techniques, if we are going to really rein in our bad habits.
Tom: How do we do that? What good habits do we need to develop?
Mellody: The first and most important thing to remember is that credit cards are not there to extend your spending level. All of your purchases on credit cards should be within your budget. Internalizing this is hard, but it is the single most important step in being a responsible credit card holder.
In terms of best practices, I have 3 habits that will help you stay on the right track with your cards. First, always pay your bill in full. Unless it is an emergency, you should not have to carry a balance. This will help you avoid paying interest charges or fees. Second, sign up for the automatic payment option.
If you miss a payment or make a payment after the due date, you not only incur hefty fees, but you can hurt your credit score. If you enroll in an automatic payment program, you avoid these issues altogether. Finally, make sure to review your statement each month. Take time every month to look through your statement. With breaches and fraud, you have to take time to ensure there are no erroneous charges.
Tom: Sometimes you have to use your credit card for unexpected expenses. How do you prepare for that?
Mellody: That is very true, and actually it is one of the reasons – aside from building credit – that we have credit cards. But as I said, they have to fall within your budget. Outside of responsible use of plastic, it is important to do a few things. First, build and stick to a budget. You hear it from me often, but this is the key first step of financial responsibility. In that budget, make sure you are setting aside money for an emergency fund, for the times that you might have to use your credit card. One last thing: if you already have multiple cards with outstanding debt, make sure you prioritize paying off the highest interest card first.
Tom: Thanks for the tips, Mellody!
Mellody: Thanks for having me, Tom!
Mellody is President of Ariel Investments, a Chicago-based money management firm that serves individual investors and retirement plans through its no-load mutual funds and separate accounts. Additionally, she is a regular financial contributor and analyst for CBS News and CBS.com.