The global economy has been in something of a holding pattern, as the suppressed cost of oil and the strength of the Dollar have provided a windfall for some households while making the earnings expectations of many companies unattainable. And while recent reports foretell the continued growth of the U.S. economy, analysis of the newest data on consumer spending and payment habits could serve to either substantiate our enthusiasm or dampen it with the clouds of caution.
During the first quarter of 2015, U.S. consumers paid down $34.7 billion in amounts owed to credit card companies. And though first quarter debt paydowns are the norm – as consumers are fueled by annual salary bonuses, tax refunds and New Year’s Resolutions – this year’s debt reduction was 7% larger than those of the past two years. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that we simply started with more debt to repay, finishing 2014 with more than $57 billion in new debt and starting 2015 with the largest first-quarter average household credit card balance in six years, at $7,177. This makes seemingly-encouraging improvements easier to come by and apparently more substantial than they really are.
As a result, CardHub projects that U.S. consumers will end 2015 with a net credit card debt similar to that of 2014 – roughly $55.8 billion.
Q1 Main Findings
By the Numbers:
- Net Result in Debt Load: –$34,706,419,539
- Relative to Q1 2014: 7%
- Relative to Q1 2013: 7%
- Relative to Q1 2012: 1%
- Relative to Q1 2011: 6%
- Relative to Q1 2010: –10%
- Relative to Q1 2009: –23%
- Outstanding Credit Card Debt: $41,002,563,000
- Credit Card Charge-Offs: $6,296,143,461
- While our first-quarter debt paydown returned to 2012 levels, the fact that we had so much debt to begin with and trends from previous quarters suggest that this is something of a false positive. Rather than incurring less than $40 billion in new debt, as was the case in 2012, we are more likely to replicate last year’s performance with a $55+ billion buildup.
- Furthermore, we paid off roughly 4% of our overall debt load during the first quarter of the year, and while this amount was higher than the past couple of years in dollar terms, the percentage reduction was consistently around 4%.
- Credit card defaults also declined by more than $350 million in Q1 2015 compared to the first quarter of 2014, bringing the first quarter default rate to its lowest point since 1995.
- Despite our first quarter improvements, U.S. credit card habits show signs of regression to pre-recession levels. The second quarter of 2015 will therefore offer a lot of context to our current trajectory, enabling us to better authenticate trends that appear to be emerging.
- If the average household transferred their credit card balances to the Chase Slate Card – the best 0% transfer offer on the market – they would save $1,257 in finances if they could make the $355 monthly payment required to get out of debt in 24 months.
If paying $256 per month over the course of three years is more realistic, the Citi Diamond Preferred Card – with its 21-month 0% intro rate and 3% transfer fee – would save the average household $1,696 in finance charges.
Please note that figures listed in the Main Findings section of a particular quarter won’t always match those in the Data & Graphs section of this report, as the Federal Reserve regularly updates historical data with new research. Figures included in each Main Findings section reflect the information that was available at the time of that quarterly study being conducted, while the Data & Graphs section reflects the most recent data available.
Net Result of Consumer Credit Card Debt Q1 2009 – Q1 2015
|Net Result in Debt Load||Relative to Same Period
|Relative to Same Period Two Years Ago|
Net Result in Debt Load – Green indicates that consumers decreased their debt relative to the previous quarter. Red indicates they increased their debt relative to the previous quarter.
Relative to Same Period – Green indicates that consumers either paid down more debt or accumulated less debt than they did in the previous two years. Red indicates that they either paid down less debt or accumulated more debt than they did in the same quarter in the previous two years.
Annual Net Result of Consumer Credit Card Debt 2009 – 2015(p):
Consumer Credit Card Debt and Charge-off Data (in Billions):
|Outstanding Credit Card Debt||Quarterly Credit Card Charge-Off Rate||Quarterly Credit Card Charge-Off in Dollars|
Quarterly Credit Card Charge-Off in Dollars
Average Credit Card Debt per Household
- Make a Budget (and Stick to It): It’s difficult to spend within reason or plan savings without knowing how your monthly spending compares to your take-home as well as what it is allotted to. That is why you should rank order your expenses – including debt payments, emergency fund contributions, and other savings – and trim the fat if necessary. And most importantly, once you develop your budget, make sure to stick to it or else you’ll have simply wasted your time.
- Build an Emergency Fund: With a robust financial safety net, you’ll be less at the mercy of the economy and able to withstand a prolonged period of joblessness, should the need arise. Your goal should be to gradually save about a year’s worth of after-tax income through monthly contributions to an emergency account.
- Try the Island Approach: The Island Approach is a credit card strategy that involves using different cards for different types of transactions, as if they are a chain of distinct yet interrelated islands. For example, you could transfer your existing debt to a 0% credit card in order to reduce your monthly payments as well as get out of debt sooner and subsidize your ongoing spending with a rewards card or two that offer high earning rates in your biggest expense categories. This will enable you to get the best possible collection of terms as well as gain a better perspective on your spending and payment habits since finance charges on your everyday spending cards will signal a need to cut back.
- Use the Snowball Method to Strategically Pay Off Amounts Owed: In order to become debt free at the least possible cost, you should attribute the majority of your monthly debt payment to the balance 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.
- Evaluate Your Job Situation: In some cases, all the budgeting and planning in the world won’t be enough to solve your debt problems. You may therefore need to evaluate whether there are higher-paying opportunities out there for people with your background or if you’ll need to acquire some new skills in order to make yourself more marketable. This might require making a bit of an investment in yourself, but as long as you get a worthwhile return it’s money well spent.
* Some of the numbers may differ from study to study as a result of the Federal Reserve updating certain numbers for several months after first publishing them. For questions or more information regarding this study, please contact our media department.