American families nationwide are still struggling to get themselves back on a firm financial footing, according to recent research. A study from Equifax, the credit report agency, has found that the credit-card debt burden of some households accounts for a staggering 17 percent of their income. This doesn't even take into account debt from store-specific credit cards, so the full extent of this problem could be even worse than these figures suggests.
Experian has also analyzed consumer spending habits, finding that the average consumer is now laden with more than $4,200 in credit card debt, which, although down a modest 4 percent from last year's average, still represents a high proportion of many families' earnings.
The bad news is that the residents of many cities owe substantially more than the national average. Here are five cities with the worst levels of credit card debt according to the recently published statistics:
1. San Antonio
The report breaks down the data by metropolitan area and finds that San Antonio leads the nation in the unenviable category of most heavily indebted American city. Residents of San Antonio are carrying an average balance of $5,177, more than 20 percent above the national average.
Jeanie Wyatt, chief executive of the San Antonio advisory firm South Texas Money Management, said the city’s residents are largely living on working-class paychecks, which could explain some of the credit card debt.
"While San Antonio has a lower unemployment rate and a more stable economy, our wage earners are at that mid to lower end," she said. "I would presume that lower-income individuals tend to have a higher percentage of credit card debt."
2. Jacksonville, Fla.
The balances in Jacksonville are not much healthier, at an average of $5,115. Residents are also burdened with lower-than-average credit scores.
The report says Jacksonville isn't the only part of Florida that is having problems with high debt. Tallahassee, Miami and Orlando are also among the 25 U.S. cities with the highest consumer credit card debt averages.
Mortgage problems across Florida and a high unemployment rate are big factors for the high level of borrowing, says David Jones, president of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies.
Atlanta's average balance of $4,960 is also a high percentage of residents’ income. Credit experts say that the combination of frivolous spending and economic desperation has led to the city's high average card balance. Atlanta has suffered heavily from the housing market collapse and an unemployment surge.
Honolulu's debt is 15 percent higher than the national average at an average of $4,939. Honolulu was ranked eighth in the same study last year.
Unlike the other cities in the top five, Honolulu's residents have high credit ratings. Honolulu residents' average credit scores are higher than the national average, according to the VantageScore model created by Experian, Equifax and TransUnion, the three largest credit reporting companies in the US.
The higher the city's VantageScore, the more likely its residents are to pay their credit-card bills on time and carry a higher limit. So, although card debts are high, this would suggest that consumers in Honolulu are being conscious and thoughtful about how they're using their credit.
Dallas residents are holding onto an average of $4,936 in plastic debt. Although it’s down 4.5 percent from the same time last year, is still more than 15 percent higher than the national average. Dallas also holds one of the lowest VantageScores in the country.
Maxine Sweet, vice president for public education at Experian, says of the lower credit scores in Texas, "When you have consumers who are in crisis with foreclosures and employment — that has to be driving up their credit card debt."
The bottom line
Whatever the reason for credit card debts, the residents of these states and the rest of the country would be well advised to restrain their dependence on credit cards whenever possible. As Sweet warns, "It's important for consumers to get debt under control before it has a lasting impact on their credit scores."
Equifax's report does offer us a glimmer of hope — total consumer debt has declined from its terrifying peak in October 2008. Unfortunately, the news is not all good. Fifty-four million households still owe more than $800 billion in debt to credit card companies alone, without taking into account their mortgage payments or any other loan.
So while the research shows that consumers' intentions are good, there is still a long way to go before the balance reads zero.
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