We’ve come back to a recurring topic: credit card debt.
Mellody: Reversing the positive trend we saw in the wake of the financial crisis, when Americans were paying down credit card debt, we are now racking up debt on plastic again in a big way.
According to a new report from the Nilson report, credit card receivables, otherwise known as outstanding debt, surpassed $1 trillion in the U.S. at the end of 2016. That means we are closing in on the record of $1.02 trillion set in July 2008, right before the financial crisis.
Why are we seeing people turn to their credit cards again?
It is a combination of factors. First, consumer confidence has rebounded since the Great Recession, and people are beginning to see a return to wage growth after years of wage stagnation. As a result, more and more Americans are feeling confident enough in their finances to make more purchases.
But, while wages have been growing again, so have costs. Overall, household incomes have failed to keep up with the increased cost of living. So, in order to make up for this difference, Americans have turned to plastic again, one of the most expensive ways to borrow.
On top of this, lenders have been aggressively pushing plastic to consumers. Credit cards have been one of the few business lines that are consistently profitable for banks in recent years, as low-interest rates have hurt margins on ordinary lending, and tougher regulation has reduced profits in trading. So, with card low delinquency rates and rising interest rates, banks are hoping to continue to capitalize on our demand for credit.
Is this growth in credit card users consistent among all Americans?
Worryingly, it’s not, and those who are returning to plastic are those who are most at risk of being burned by credit card debt. In the wake of the financial crisis, many creditworthy consumers are still cautious about spending. So, to make up the gap, lenders are turning more aggressively to subprime borrowers. According to Equifax, credit card lenders issued some 10.6 million general-purpose credit cards to subprime borrowers last year, up 25% from 2014 and the highest level since 2007.
Is it just credit card debt that is growing?
Debt overall is growing. Total household debt, including mortgages, has ballooned to $132,529, up from $88,063 in 2002, when Nerdwallet started tracking the data. And again, it goes back to wages. While household income has grown by 28 percent in the past 13 years, it lags the cost of living, which increased 30 percent during the period.
On the overall debt front, there are some positive notes overall. Back in 2007, a much larger percentage of Americans’ $12.37 trillion in total debt was from credit cards. Now it’s more heavily weighted toward mortgages and student loans. And, the growth in student loan debt owed is rising at its slowest pace since Nerdwallet started tracking it in 2003. But slower debt growth does not mean we can ignore it entirely. All the trends point to the fact that Americans are returning to bad financial habits.
When it comes to credit cards, what do we need to remember to cultivate good habits?
You need to remember that your credit limits are not an addition to your spending budget, they must fall within it. Credit cards do not extend your spending power. Internalizing this is hard, but it is the single most important step in being a responsible credit card holder.
And when it comes to credit cards, I like to stress 3 key 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 carry a balance. That way, you do not accrue fees or interest charges.
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 must take time to ensure there are no erroneous charges.
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.