Credit Card Debt Study: Trends & Insights

Mar 8, 2018  |  Alina Comoreanu, Senior Researcher

credit card debt 2018Credit card debt statistics speak to the financial health of American households. They can also foreshadow over-borrowing bubbles, changes to lending standards, and other trends with the potential to impact our wallets. And the latest news is not good.

Americans now owe more than $1 trillion in credit card debt for the first time ever, after adding a post-Great Recession record $92.2 billion to our tab in 2017. Only four times in the past 30 years have we spent so much in a year. And in each of those prior cases, the charge-off rate – currently hovering near historical lows – rose the following year. There wasn’t nearly as much kindling on the fire, either.

So it’s 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.

Main Findings

At more than $1 trillion, outstanding credit card debt is at the highest point ever.

The $67.6 billion in credit card debt that we added in Q4 2017 is the highest quarterly accumulation in the last 30 years – 68% higher than the post-Great Recession average.

We ended 2017 with $92.2 billion in new credit card debt, most for a year since 2007 and 105% above the post-recession average.

Since the end of the Great Recession, consumer performance has regressed on a year-over-year basis in two out of every three quarters.

The fact that charge-off rates remain near historical lows continues to fuel lenders’ appetites for extending credit, but there will be a tipping point eventually.

Average Credit Card Debt per Household

Stat Q4 2017 Q4 2016 Percent
Change
Average Credit Card Debt per Household $8,600 $8,131 +6%
Total Credit Card Debt $1008.5 billion $950.20 billion +6%
Quarter Net Increase $67.6 billion $58.20 billion +16%

 

The average household’s balance, at $8,600, is $138 higher than the level WalletHub has identified as being sustainable.

Tips For Managing Debt

  1. Make a Budget & Stick to It: It’s difficult to spend within reason or plan savings if you don’t know how your monthly spending compares to your take-home pay, or where that money is going. That is why you should rank-order your expenses – including debt payments, emergency fund contributions and other savings – and trim the fat, if necessary.

    Most importantly, once you develop your budget, make sure to stick to it or else you’ll have simply wasted your time.

  2. Build an Emergency Fund: With a safety net of cash to fall back on, you won’t be as likely to fall behind on your bills in the event of emergency expenses or unplanned joblessness. Your goal should be to gradually save about a year’s worth of after-tax income. In other words, set aside a little bit every month until you’ve got a nice cushion.
  3. Improve Your Credit: This might sound a bit counterintuitive, seeing as more credit could mean more debt. But improving your credit standing will have a dramatic impact on the cost of your debt. And reducing the cost of your debt will allow you to pay it off faster. Better credit can also make it easier to find a job or a place to live, both of which impact your bottom line.

    You can check your latest credit score for free and get personalized credit-improvement tips on WalletHub.

  4. Try the Island Approach: The Island Approach is a strategy that involves using a collection of credit cards, with each serving a specific purpose. For example, you could transfer your existing debt to a 0% balance transfer credit card to save on finance charges and get out of debt sooner. And you could use a rewards card or two – perhaps one with travel rewards and one with cash back, or maybe a store credit card – for purchases that you’ll be able to pay off by the end of the month.

    This will enable you to get the best possible collection of terms. It will also tell you when you’re overspending. Finance charges on your everyday spending cards will signal a need to cut back.

  5. Repay Your Most Expensive Debt First: Most people with serious credit card debt have multiple balances. If that’s the case for you, try the “snowball method.” That means putting the majority of your monthly debt payment toward the balance with the highest interest rate and making the minimum payment required on the rest. Once your most expensive debt is paid off, repeat the process until you’re debt-free.
  6. 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 need to explore whether higher-paying opportunities exist for people with your background or consider acquiring some new skills to make yourself more marketable.

    This may require a bit of an investment in yourself, but as long as you get a worthwhile return, it’s money well spent.

Raw Data

 
Net Result of Consumer Credit Card Debt Q1 2008 – Q4 2017

Net Result in Debt Load Relative to Same Period
Last Year
Relative to Same Period Two Years Ago
2017 $92,162,085,394 6% 112%
2017 Q4 $67,587,457,644 16% 184%
2017 Q3 $22,083,221,201 0% 2%
2017 Q2 $32,959,646,644 -3% 1%
2017 Q1 -$30,468,240,096 13% -12%
2016 $87,179,894,194 101% 46%
2016 Q4 $58,162,724,216 145% 25%
2016 Q3 $21,988,736,740 2% 34%
2016 Q2 $34,014,316,314 5% 18%
2016 Q1 -$26,985,883,075 -22% -16%
2015 $43,468,915,076 -27% 10%
2015 Q4 $23,786,512,850 -49% -45%
2015 Q3 $21,661,136,769 32% 81%
2015 Q2 $32,546,240,051 13% 91%
2015 Q1 -$34,524,974,594 8% 7%
2014 $59,598,044,372 50% 66%
2014 Q4 $46,454,708,640 8% 16%
2014 Q3 $16,417,696,528 37% 31%
2014 Q2 $28,727,858,104 68% 63%
2014 Q1 -$32,002,218,900 -1% -7%
2013 $39,674,323,175 10% -15%
2013 Q4 $43,055,110,657 7% -2%
2013 Q3 $11,942,666,289 -5% -26%
2013 Q2 $17,084,314,418 -3% -12%
2013 Q1 -$32,407,768,189 -6% -1%
2012 $35,909,244,579 -23% 1430%
2012 Q4 $40,158,372,826 -9% 56%
2012 Q3 $12,559,020,640 -23% 127%
2012 Q2 $17,581,923,340 -9% 84%
2012 Q1 -$34,390,072,227 6% -11%
2011 $46,856,429,988 1897% 5552%
2011 Q4 $43,900,546,607 71% 95%
2011 Q3 $16,212,398,214 193% 35%
2011 Q2 $19,331,507,081 102% 106%
2011 Q1 -$32,588,021,914 -15% -27%
2010 $2,346,809,419 373% -96%
2010 Q4 $25,700,535,670 14% -29%
2010 Q3 $5,529,810,666 -54% -60%
2010 Q2 $9,579,346,075 2% -59%
2010 Q1 -$38,462,882,992 -14% 123%
2009 -$859,433,025 102% 101%
2009 Q4 $22,480,525,906 -38% -65%
2009 Q3 $12,015,258,486 -12% -69%
2009 Q2 $9,405,974,285 -60% -70%
2009 Q1 -$44,761,191,702 160% 104%
2008 $56,164,964,121 -50% -42%
2008 Q4 $36,105,212,312 -44% -34%
2008 Q3 $13,729,236,627 -64% -46%
2008 Q2 $23,576,543,987 -26% -5%
2008 Q1 -$17,246,028,806 -22% 106%

Net Result in Debt LoadGreen 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 PeriodGreen 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.
 
Consumer Credit Card Debt and Charge-off Data (in Billions) Q1 1986 – Q4 2017:


*Numbers may differ from year to year due to the fact that the Federal Reserve regularly retroactively updating figures. Questions or requests for information can be directed to our media department.
 

Cities with the Most & Least Sustainable Credit Card Debt

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99th Percentile = Most Sustainable Credit Card Debt