How Did Americans Amass $23 Billion in Delinquent Credit Card Debt?

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At the end of June, Americans had run up revolving (mostly credit card) debt of more than $1 trillion. That’s actually below the peak of $1.03 trillion reached in December of 2017 and the fourth time that revolving debt has topped $1 trillion since January 1968. The first time was December 2007.

While the vast majority of that debt is paid off in a timely (if expensive) manner, more than $23 billion of that debt is delinquent, meaning a payment is 30 days or more past due. Being behind on a credit card payment has affected 21% of Americans at least once in their lives and the reasons they missed their payments don’t match up with why other Americans think that credit card delinquencies are rising.

A survey of 2,019 U.S. adults conducted on behalf of personal finance website NerdWallet asked if they had been late with credit card payments and why. The survey also asked why other Americans missed credit card payments and how different generations compare.

More than half of those surveyed (56%) said delinquencies are rising because other Americans are spending too much on nonessential items. The second-most cited reason (44%) is higher levels of non-credit card debt (student loans, car loans, mortgages). More than a third of those surveyed also mentioned all four of the following reasons for higher delinquency rates: easier to get approved for a credit card, higher prices for consumer goods, higher interest rates, stagnant wages.

Only one in six of the 21% of Americans who say they have been delinquent on a credit card debt say that the reason for the delinquency is that they overspent on nonessential items. The most common reason people cited for being delinquent (35%): they forgot. A full third said they had to pay for essential items and 32% said they had to pay for an unexpected emergency.

NerdWallet cites its most recent study on household credit card debt:

[I]ncome growth isn’t keeping up with some of Americans’ biggest expenses. As of 2017, medical, food and housing costs have grown at a faster rate than income over a 10-year period. In addition, education costs have exploded in the past decade, and all of these expenses can eat up most, or even more than, many Americans’ budgets.

And when it comes to prioritizing payments, 49% of Americans would defer a credit card bill either completely or partially. Just 17% would defer a mortgage payment while 10% would skip a student loan payment and 14% would delay a car payment.

There’s a price to pay, though. NerdWallet credit card expert Kimberly Palmer cautions:

Being delinquent on your credit card can have a huge negative impact on your finances. Not only do you have to pay late fees, but the interest can grow over time and in some cases your credit score drops, too, making future loans more expensive for you.

NerdWallet offers three suggestions to avoid becoming delinquent on your credit card payments:

  • Make it impossible to forget your payment.
  • Pay at least the minimum due.
  • Save when you don’t have to.

For more details and the full survey report is available at the NerdWallet website.