Americans are holding record levels of credit card debt — but still planning a holiday splurge

"The economy is good, the job market is good, but a lot of people are living close to the edge,” said one financial analyst.
Image: An advertisement for Black Friday sales on appliances stands on display at a Best Buy Inc. store in Paramus, New Jersey.
Around 40 percent of survey respondents with credit card debt said their balances today are higher than they generally have been over the course of the past decade. Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg / Getty Images file

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By Martha C. White

A new survey finds that a significant number of Americans have more debt, and are increasingly worried about being able to service that debt. Yet this holiday shopping season could be another record-breaker, with online spending alone set to hit almost $144 billion — and credit experts say holiday season pitches to open store credit cards could exacerbate shoppers' debt.

By most metrics, it would be hard to overstate the difference between today’s economy and the economy of 10 years ago. The most recent GDP reading shows the U.S. economy growing at 1.9 percent for the quarter. In 2009, GDP fell by 2.5 percent. Last month’s unemployment rate was 3.6 percent. In October 2009, that figure hit 10 percent. Credit card charge-off rates rose to 10.63 percent — a record high — in the third quarter of 2009, compared to 3.7 percent for the third quarter this year.

A survey from Bankrate.com, though, finds that these improving circumstances are encouraging Americans to take on more debt — perhaps unsustainable amounts, in some cases.

Bankrate found that a surprising number of Americans see themselves as more debt-burdened today than they have been over the past 10 years: 40 percent of survey respondents with credit card debt said their balances today are higher than they generally have been over the course of the past decade.

“Generally speaking, the economy is good, the job market is good, but a lot of people are living close to the edge,” said Bankrate analyst Ted Rossman. “That’s not a lot of progress.”

There are indications that suggest these more challenging financial circumstances are a fairly recent phenomenon. Bankrate’s survey found that while 33 percent of respondents with credit cards said they are less stressed about their credit card debt now than they were at the beginning of the year, 23 percent characterized themselves as more stressed.

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Rossman said some of that optimism manifesting as lower debt anxiety might come from macroeconomic indicators rather than people’s own financial circumstances and progress at paying down their debts. “My educated guess is it would be more that they’re feeling good about their income and their job prospects because it doesn’t seem that people have paid down that much,” he said. “Credit card debt is about as high as it’s ever been.”

As APRs have been steadily inching up, compound interest is compounding the risk, he said. “A lot of it isn’t getting paid off every month. That’s a lot of people who are paying 17 percent, 20 percent, even 25 percent — this is expensive debt.”

In spite of the Federal Reserve’s trio of interest rate cuts, credit card borrowers haven’t seen much relief from high APRs. One credit card expert even found that the total benefit from a half-percentage point drop in interest rates would only be $63 for borrowers with $6,000 in debt and middle-of-the-road credit scores paying $250 per month.

The Federal Reserve’s trio of interest rate cuts have not done much to ease the burden of debt.

“Unfortunately, those rate cuts haven’t done a lot of ease the burden of debt,” Rossman said. “These credit card rates do remain much higher than rates we see on other types of debt. There really isn’t any relief there.”

Some Americans seem to be reaching a tipping point. The survey found that 11 percent of respondents with credit cards, and 14 percent of those between the ages of 35 and 54, say they have more trouble today than they did at the beginning of the year affording their credit card payments.

The holidays — and the deluge of promotions for one-time discounts offered to people who open store credit cards — are a real risk for this population of already debt-burdened Americans.

“It’s so tempting to do the retail cards,” said Ande Frazier, CEO of myWorth, a personal finance site for women. “At this time of the year, it can be especially hard,” she acknowledged. Shoppers spending several hundred dollars might want the savings of a 10 percent or 20 percent discount.

But that value erodes quickly in the face of interest rates that can approach — or even top — 30 percent.

At the midpoint of the range, general-purpose credit card APRs are hovering around 21 percent, Rossman said. Store card rates are about 5 percentage points higher, and Rossman said there are a number of prominent retailers with rates around 30 percent.

“The main advice here would be, don’t give in to the pressure. Just because somebody’s offering you something at checkout doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good deal,” he said.

Even if you pay if full, he added, opening store cards and running up balances can ding your credit score. Retail cards tend to have lower credit limits that are easier to max out, and a ratio called credit utilization that is a significant component of your credit score can rise to a level considered risky to lenders.

What’s more, borrowers incur a lost opportunity cost when they have to service high-interest debt. “It’s not just the money you’re giving them. It’s the interest you’re not earning if you had invested it,” Frazier said. “You’re giving away what that could have earned for you if you had kept it. All of this adds up and keeps us from being able to save and invest.”