TIME Saving & Spending

The Credit Card Bomb Just Waiting to Go Off

Last quarter, Americans collectively paid down $32.5 billion worth of credit card debt—but don’t pat yourself on the back just yet: That’s actually way less than we paid down at the end of the recession five years ago, and we’re on track to end this year with almost $42 billion more credit card debt than last year, which one credit expert warns could backfire big time.

CardHub.com‘s new quarterly credit card debt study shows a worrying return to pre-recession carelessness about debt, says Odysseas Papadimitriou, the site’s CEO. “Unfortunately, we’re a little bit worse than we were last year and significantly worse than we were in 2009 and 2010,” he says.

Americans historically pay off the most debt in the first quarter of each year, as we pay down our holiday spending and take advantage of early tax refunds to chip away at those debts — an average of $6,628 per household, according to CardHub. But in the years following the recession, we’ve been paying down less and less. This year, we paid down 28% less debt than we did in the first quarter of 2009.

In the period during and immediately after the recession, we were essentially scared straight and dumped our debt as fast as possible. We appear to have gotten over our fear, and that’s not necessarily a great thing, Papadimitriou says.

Right now, the default rate is around 3.3%, not bad by historical standards, but Papadimitriou points out that it’s coming off years of higher rates — during the last two quarters of 2009, it shot up above 10%. There’s less delinquent debt to go into default, following a period when credit card companies dumped those customers, charged off the losses and sold them to collection agencies for pennies on the dollar.

But that’s starting to change, as card issuers begin loosening credit restrictions and lending to people with blemished credit once again. We’re borrowing more as banks loosen the purse strings — CardHub predicts we’ll end this year with 8% more total credit card debt than last year, 14% more than just two years ago.

It’s not just credit card debt, either. Data earlier this year from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that overall consumer debt stands at a whopping $11.52 trillion, the highest it’s been since 2011, although it’s still below pre-recession figures. (Student loan debt — which can’t be discharged in bankruptcy the way credit card debt can — is a big culprit.)

This kind of trajectory puts us on a worrying cycle of accumulating more debt, year over year, which means any kind of financial hiccup — job loss, medical bills, illness — that hits makes us extremely vulnerable to falling behind on our debts. Papadimitriou urges Americans to build up an emergency fund so if the unexpected does happen, they won’t fall behind on their debts and be stuck paying penalty interest rates when they can least afford it.

“It seems like we need to get reminded on a constant basis of the risks of this behavior,” he says.

 

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