Special Report

American Credit Card Debt Every Year Since 1986

The American consumer’s mantra for ages has been to “Charge it!” Purchasing with plastic keeps the flow of goods and services moving, and the economy humming. But in the past four decades, Americans have relied more and more on their credit cards.

To determine how America’s credit card debt has changed since 1986, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed online personal finance site WalletHub’s 2023 Credit Card Debt Study. From the report, we listed the total outstanding credit card debt each year since 1986 and how much it changed compared to the previous year. All data included in the story is from WalletHub’s report. Charge-offs are the total value of accounts that a creditor writes off as a loss because it believes it will likely not be able to collect due to borrower delinquency, bankruptcy, or other reasons. 

WalletHub’s study is based on data from TransUnion, the Federal Reserve, and Bureau of Labor Statistics. Outstanding debt amounts are adjusted for inflation with data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It should be noted that fourth quarter 2022 data is not yet available, and so 2022 data is for the first three quarters of the year.

Through the first three quarters of 2022, total outstanding credit card balances hit over $1 trillion, the highest since 1986 and not yet accounting for the full year. Last year also recorded the second largest jump in outstanding credit card debt in 37 years, with an increase of $79.2 billion by the third quarter. (Another form of debt is student loans. Here are states with the most past due student debt.)

Much of the spike in credit card debt could be attributed to the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Consumers tend to use credit cards when the economy slumps and employment drops, as they did during the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009. During both 2007 and 2008, total outstanding credit card balances added up to nearly a trillion dollars – the seventh and sixth most, respectively, since 1986. Inflation may also be behind the rise in credit card usage.

WalletHub estimates the average credit card debt per household reached $9,260 in the second quarter of last year, 6.4% more than in the second quarter of 2021. Yet that number is $2,745 below what WalletHub projects as a breaking point for household finances. (See the states with the most credit card debt.)

Click here to see as debt skyrockets, here is the total credit card debt in America each year since 1986.

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