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Eileen A.J. Connelly, AP Personal Finance Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — Late payments on credit cards fell to their lowest level in 15 years during the first three months of 2011, TransUnion said Tuesday.

Nationwide, the rate of payments 90 days or more past due on bank-issued cards dropped to 0.74% in the first quarter, down from 1.11 % a year ago.

The delinquency rate is the lowest level since the third quarter of 1996, TransUnion said. It peaked in the first quarter of 2009 at 1.32 %.

Improved card payment habits come despite stubbornly high unemployment, noted Ezra Becker, vice president of research and consulting in TransUnion's financial services business unit. Becker said research shows that cards play such an important role in money management during periods of unemployment that users are making an effort to prioritize their payments.

One of the main reasons for the gains is that card users continue to pay down their credit card balances. The average credit card debt per borrower dropped to $4,679 for the quarter, down 9% from $5,165 a year ago. TransUnion said balances haven't been this low since the third quarter of 2000.

There are other factors contributing to the shift. One is that consumers are more aware of the dangers and costs of carrying large balances. Even though the widespread fear of sudden unemployment has lessened, the shock of the recession led many to take a new approach to using credit.

In addition, Moody's estimates banks wrote off about $74.5 billion in uncollectible credit card debt in the last few years. That fact, combined with strict regulations on card policies that took effect last year, has made them more cautious about who gets cards, and how large credit limits are.

"It's not wide open floodgates," Becker said, even though banks are starting to issue more cards.

TransUnion also noted that the recovery is not uniform across the country. There are 18 states that have delinquency rates higher than the national average, including Nevada, which leads the nation with a 1.16 delinquency rate. Nevada was among the hardest-hit states in the housing foreclosure crisis, and has an unemployment rate of 12.5%, well ahead of the 9% national rate.

The forecast is for delinquency rates to edge down for the rest of the year, ending 2011 at around 0.7%. While there is some data showing an increase in credit card use, TransUnion does not expect balances to increase.

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