U.S. revolving credit, 98% of which is credit card debt, fell to $864.4 billion in January from a revised total of $866.1 billion in December, marking the 16th consecutive month that saw Americans shed credit card debt, according to the Federal Reserve's latest G.19 report.
Since September 2008, when U.S. revolving credit totaled $975.7 billion, consumers have eliminated more than $111 billion in card debt. That means the average U.S. household with card debt, approximately 54 million according to government data, has eliminated more than $2,000 in card debt in that time either by paying it down or having it charged off as uncollectable.
Most industry analysts agree that cardholders have changed their habits because of the lingering recession and fears about when it will end. Many experts agree that cardholders have avoided credit, but some analysts say banks are mostly responsible for the decline in card balances.
"While there is evidence that consumers are using credit less and relying more on prepaid and debit cards as fallout from the recession, the biggest part of the runoff in credit card receivables was caused by issuers chasing customers away by closing inactive accounts and being too aggressive, Robert Hammer, chief executive of card consulting firm R.K. Hammer recently told PaymentsSource, a Collections & Credit Risk sister publication.
Even with the downward revolving credit trend, Americans in January actually increased their consumer debt - which includes non-revolving accounts such as auto loans, student loans and loans for mobile homes, boats and trailers. Consumer debt rose 2.4% to $2.46 trillion in January, ending a run of 11 consecutive monthly drops.
But the latest employment data from the U.S. Labor Department suggests consumer debt levels will fall again soon. An estimated 36,000 jobs were lost in February and the unemployment rate held at 9.7%.