American credit card debt is back, and it's back in style. U.S. residents are set to carry a total outstanding credit card balance of nearly $1 trillion this year, signaling the end of the frugal period that began during the financial crisis of 2008.
Americans' credit card debt increased by $71 billion in 2015 alone. The majority of last year's debt load, some $52 billion, was added during the busy holiday season. That's a huge leap over past years. The $52 billion worth of credit card debt added in the 4th quarter of 2015 was more than all the debt added to Americans' credit card balances in 2009, 2010 and 2011 put together.
According to data from the Census Bureau and the Federal Reserve Board, the United States holds more credit card debt than any other country in the world. US households now carry an average of $5,700 in outstanding balances.
US credit card debt is more than double that of the United Kingdom, and is nearly as much as China, Japan, Russia, France, Canada and Mexico combined, according to a VOA News report.
Why are Americans taking on so much debt, and should we be worried about it? Plastic is the preferred method of payment in the United States, but that's not the case in many other parts of the world.
In many European and Asian countries, banks will only accept cash as payment for mortgages, and consumers don't use plastic for most daily expenses. In both Germany, one of the world's leading economic powers, and neighboring Austria, 82% of all financial transactions are made in cash (Federal Reserve statistic).
But it's not just cultural norms that add up to a mountain of plastic-fueled debt in the US. Banks are marketing cards to consumers with more rewards and bonuses.
A Mastercard representative told VOA that the company wants to push emerging economies like India to use more plastic. While banks, card issuers and payment processors in countries like China and India are marketing plastic like never before, the United States is still the number one market for credit cards.
All that debt is causing some experts to worry. According to a report by Scott Hoyt of Moody's Analytics, the rapid rise of credit card debt could trigger the start of another recession. The current debt load of nearly $1 trillion is approaching the peak hit in 2008, just before the last financial crisis. If, as Hoyt suspects, Americans are using credit to pay for basic living expenses, the current debt load could be unsustainable.
Other economists say that more debt is a good sign. One report by the chief economist of ITG Investment Research, Steve Blitz, says that increased credit card debt is a vote of confidence in the economy. The readiness of consumers to take on credit card debt shows they expect economic conditions to continue to improve.
Whether the rise of credit card debt is worrying or encouraging, delinquency rates are lower than ever before. Only about 2% of borrowers default on credit card debt repayments, the lowest level since reporting began in 1991. But that could change if borrowers don't stay cautious. Using credit cards to get through emergencies or pay basic expenses is sometimes necessary, but it's always risky.
Looking for a rewards credit card? It pays to shop around using a credit card website like GET.com.