The state of your credit card debt isn't great, but it could be a whole lot worse.
By the third quarter of 2016, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, total U.S. credit card debt hit $747 billion (up $33 billion from a year earlier). The Federal Reserve put total revolving debt at $981.3 billion in October, up 2.9% from a year earlier despite interest rates rising from an average 12.22% to 12.51% during that time.
As was the case in 2015, the fourth quarter of 2016 wasn't pretty. Alina Comoreanu, a research analyst for Evolution Finance and a contributor to credit statistics and analysis site WalletHub, notes that credit card debt for all of 2016 is expected to increase by a total of $80 billion, putting total credit card debt near levels last seen just before the Great Recession in 2007.
That means that the average household with credit card debt now owes $7,941 -- or just $523 less than WalletHub considers unsustainable for a median household income of little less than $52,000. Also, as CardHub points out, we haven't hit $900 billion in credit card debt since 2007 during the ramp up to the financial system's 2008 collapse.
"It is not a question of whether consumers are weakening financially, but rather how long this trend toward pre-recession habits will last and just how bad it will get," Comoreanu says. "Unfortunately, the immediate forecast does not appear too bright."
Fortunately, each year typically begins with a huge paydown as consumers get their tax refunds and annual salary bonuses. Unfortunately, last year's $27 billion paydown was the smallest since 2008 and was immediately wiped out by adding $34.4 billion in credit card debt the second quarter. That paydown was actually $17.7 billion less than U.S. consumers paid toward their credit card debt to kick off 2009. We ended that year with an $875 million decrease in overall debt. We never repeated that feat, and only gained positive momentum once more, when the $36 billion in debt we added in 2012 was 22% less than the nearly $47 billion we added in 2011.
That debt isn't spread out all that evenly, either. Alaska, Florida, Texas, Georgia and New Mexico have four of the nation's five highest credit card debt burdens, according to a new survey by CreditCards.com. The study compared the average credit card debt and the median income in each state. States are ranked by how quickly residents can erase the average card balance, using 15% of their earnings. By that metric, it would take Alaskans 20 months and $992 in interest to wipe out their average card debt of $7,552. The other states in the bottom five would require 18 to 20 months and $678 to $743 worth of interest to pay off their credit card debt.
"It's very hard to get out of debt if you're already stretching every dollar to pay for food, housing and other essentials," says Matt Schulz, CreditCards.com's senior industry analyst. "If you're in this position, consider a 0% balance transfer credit card - these interest-free periods last as long as 21 months. Another idea is to dedicate as much extra money as you can towards your credit card debt, certainly much more than the minimum that's due each month."
Making only minimum payments, it would take the typical Florida cardholder almost 13 years to retire the state's average credit card debt of $5,603. That cardholder would pay over $3,600 in interest for their trouble, compared to a North Dakota cardholder who'd take 12 months and just $370 in interest to pay off that state's average $4,599 balance. While cardholders in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Iowa tend to have an easier time paying off their cards than their counterparts in other states, a debt study by finance site NerdWallet suggests that geography plays a lesser role in nationwide credit card debt than income does.
According to NerdWallet, the average household with revolving credit card debt carried a balance of $6,885 as of June 2016 and pays $1,292 in interest, assuming an annual percentage rate of 18.76%. However, households that bring in more than $157,479 per year pay almost four times more in credit card interest than households that make less than $21,432.
Yes, higher-income folks are carrying far more debt, but they're more capable of paying it off. When a worker who makes $20,000 a year owes $3,611 in credit card debt, that's 18% of their annual income. When a household making $150,000 a year has $10,036 in credit card debt, that's less than 7% of its income. The self-employed are acutely aware of how rough revolving credit card debt can be: households led by self-employed individuals spend $1,631 in credit card interest annually, while heads of household who work for someone else pay only $1,211 to finance their credit card debt each year. Unfortunately, those put in the tightest spots by credit card debt are those who've come to rely on it most.
"Taking on debt to cover the gap between income and expenses is a short-term fix with costly long-term results," says Sean McQuay, NerdWallet's credit and banking expert. "Instead of taking on debt, try to increase your income by finding freelance work or a part-time job you can do on the side, or cut back on expenses where you reasonably can, before adding to your credit card's balance."
It's part of the reason why younger generations have become less tolerant of credit card debt and debt in general. As credit agency Equifax discovered, about 70% of college students have one or more credit cards, but a slightly higher percentage pay their balances in full each month -- without help. In a survey of more than 600 college students ages 18 to 24, this happens despite 16% of respondents using credit cards for emergencies only. Nope, 72% pay off their credit card balances each month on their own, and 18% said their parents helped pay off their balances every month.
Even if they haven't paid their balances of within the month, more than half with outstanding balance (59%) plan to pay it off within a year.
"We're talking about a generation that has subtle, but meaningful differences from its Millennial predecessors," says Melanie Wing, vice president of customer insights at Equifax. "We wanted to peer inside this consumer group, understand their relationship with credit, and attempt to prevent what we're seeing with Millennials - many of whom are plagued with record levels of student loan debt and an inability to successfully achieve their financial goals."
As Bankrate, just 52% of Americans have more emergency savings than credit card debt. However, Millennials are more likely than any other age group to have a nest egg that exceeds their bills.
"Contrary to society's perception of Millennials and their financial characteristics, Millennials have learned from their parents' mistakes and are more cautious when it comes to saving for that rainy day," said Greg McBride, Bankrate chief financial analyst. "Their aversion to credit cards may have also played a part in helping them grow their savings accounts."
Also, though CreditCards.com found that more than one in five Americans with debt (21%) believe they will never pay them all off -- up from just nine percent in 2013 -- only 11% of Millennials give the same response. Why? Because they know how credit and debt work and how to balance them. The percentage of U.S. households with credit cards carrying revolving debt has decreased from 44% in 2009 to just 34% today, according to the National Foundation For Credit Counseling, and Millennials are a big reason why. While the overall economic recovery plays a larger role in it, Millennials have also helped credit card delinquency rates drop from 13.7% in 2010 -- the worst among all consumer debt -- to 7.1%.
Yes, 67% of Millennials hold a credit card, according to Experian, but 68% have pre-existing debt and 64% say finances are holding them back from their life goals. There are 49% who want to travel the world. Another 49% want to buy a home. There are 30% who want to start a business, 28% want to go back to school and 22% would like to change careers. It's why 71% have never maxed out a credit card, 77% have never had their credit card interest rate increased and 58% pay the full balance instead of the minimum each month.
"This survey provided us with the feedback we had hoped: that this generation, despite being bombarded by information from a variety of sources, is developing credit-smart behavior early on," Wing added. "However, we firmly believe ongoing education; appropriate tools and resources; and a thorough understanding of the implications that today's financial decisions can have on tomorrow's milestones are keys to a positive experience with credit."
Meanwhile, there is no time like the present to pay down your balance and do your part to chip away at the nation's credit card debt. Advisors regularly suggest building an emergency fund with monthly contributions that add up to a year's worth of after-tax income. You can also open new credit cards or lines of credit that should stay zeroed out, as they'll improve both your overall credit and your ratio of debt to free credit. WalletHub also suggests using the "island approach," where you use different cards for different types of transactions" Like transferring your existing debt to a 0% interest credit card in order to reduce your monthly payments and using a rewards card for you biggest ongoing expenses.
Most importantly, pay a majority of your monthly debt payment to the card with the highest interest rate while making the minimum payment required on the rest. Once your most expensive debt is paid off, repeat the process as necessary with the remaining balances. By making a budget plan and sticking to it, you can more easily whittle down debt as it comes in instead of just compiling it more quickly than you can pay it down. Though the nation's overall credit-card balance doesn't show it, advisors say consumers are getting the message.
"When the next recession strikes, it's unlikely to be the result of poorly managed credit card debt," McQuay says. "By all measures, consumers are handling their debt far more responsibly than they have in years past, likely due to a combination of issuers tightening their lending rules and consumers paying their minimums more responsibly."