Consumers have been racking up credit card debt at a pace not seen since the period leading up to the 2008 credit market collapse. And that has experts worried.
"This is a huge red flag," said Odysseas Papadimitriou, chief executive of CardHub, a credit card comparison and personal finance company.
Americans appear to be spending like it's 2007 as they charged up $70.9 billion in new debt on their credit cards in 2015, according to CardHub's 2015 Credit Card Debt Study, released this week. The lion's share came in the fourth quarter, when consumers charged up $52.4 billion in new debt.
"It's the largest fourth-quarter debt buildup since the Great Recession [of 2008] - 42% higher than the post-recession average," said Papadimitriou. "During this one quarter, we added more credit card debt than the fourth quarters of 2009, 2010 and 2011 put together."
The report shows total outstanding credit card debt was $917.7 billion in 2015. The last time total debt breached the $900 billion mark was in 2007. On a personal level, the average household with credit card debt now owes $7,879, which is the highest balance since the 2008 recession, when the average level hit $8,400 and the credit markets imploded.
"All of this has us wondering if 2016 will be the next 2008 for the credit markets," the report said.
Of course, the 2008 credit crisis was exacerbated by the housing meltdown, which isn't the case today. Still, Papadimitriou sees this current level as a dangerous tipping point. "Incomes haven't risen that much in the past ten years," he said. "Once you get into that tipping point, where you cannot make your payments anymore, then it all goes into a downward spiral and gets out of control very fast."
Consumers appear to be reverting back to old spending habits.
"Unfortunately, I'm not surprised by the data," Papadimitriou said. "It's human nature - short memories, we don't learn from our mistakes, we keep repeating our mistakes, and that's why history is full of these repetitions."
The report offers ways for consumers to better manage their debt and possibly stave off losses in the event the credit markets turn south.
Make a budget and stick to it. Carefully map out monthly expenses and compare it with take-home pay, making sure to prioritize expenses, with rent, food, debt payments and emergency fund contributions ranking first.
Build an emergency fund to prepare for the worst. Experts recommend saving about a year's worth of after-tax income through monthly contributions to an emergency account.
Take steps to improve your credit. This means paying bills on time and adding as many different credit niches as possible, whether it's paying utility bills, mortgages, retail cards or auto loans. The greater the variety and history of payments, the faster the score improves. While this might involve opening new lines of credit - which could tempt a person to take on even more debt - the benefits outweigh the potential drawbacks. "Improving your credit standing will have a dramatic impact on the cost of your debt, and thus, how quickly you can pay it off," the report said. "Better credit can also make it easier to find a job or place to live - both of which impact your bottom line."
Try the "Island Approach," which means using different credit cards for different types of transactions as if they are a chain of distinct, yet different, interrelated islands. For example, a person could transfer existing debt on one credit card to a 0% credit card in order to reduce monthly payments and get out of debt sooner on those charges. The same person might use a rewards card, which offers big perks and cashbacks, for ongoing expenses in the biggest expense categories.
Use the "snowball" method to pay off amounts owed in a strategic fashion. To become debt-free at the lowest possible cost, it would be wise to make the biggest monthly payments to the card that has the highest interest rate - and make the minimum payment on the rest until the most expensive debt is paid off. Then repeat the process with the remaining cards.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.