Credit Card Use Is Imprisoning Fewer Americans

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Americans are relying less on their credit cards now, and more consumers are able to pay their balance in full each month, according to a recent Gallup poll.

The poll found that in 2014 48% of Americans always pay the balance of their credit card each month compared to 42% who paid them in full in 2006 and only 43% in 2008 during the Great Recession.

Also See: How to Make Credit Cards Work for You

Now only 33% of credit card owners say they leave a balance each month, which is a record low since Gallup began measuring these habits in 2001.

Consumers appear to be more fiscally responsible now than in the 2000s with 64% of Americans who always or usually pay the full amount of their credit card balance, the highest level that Gallup has recorded.

The Gallup findings support the National Foundation for Credit Counseling's 2014 Financial Literacy Survey, which revealed that 71% of respondents pay their bills on time and have no debts in collection.

"This percentage is identical to the 2013 number, suggesting that people's personal economies are stabilizing," said Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the NFCC.

Americans now also own fewer credit cards, including ones from Visa or MasterCard, department stores and retail chain stores. Consumers have an average of 2.6 cards, including some people who have no credit cards. For credit card owners, the average is 3.7 cards, which is the lowest amount that Gallup has recorded.

While 29% of Americans do not own any credit cards, an increase from 22% in 2008, there remains 7% of consumers have seven or more cards.

Also See: Having One Credit Card Is a Terrible Idea

The amount of debt that credit card holders is $3,573, a decline of nearly $300 from 2008, but $150 higher than in 2006, which "suggests that the amount of overall debt for credit card owners has not changed much compared with 2006 and the decline among all Americans is mainly because fewer Americans own credit cards," the Gallup poll said.

One ramification of the Great Recession is that credit card companies increased interest rates for many cardholders, which affected the spending ability of many consumers.

Many consumers have found that getting approval for credit cards has become harder as the banks and companies issuing cards have lowered credit limits and set stricter rules.

"The ability to qualify for credit products, including cards has become more and more difficult in the current economy," said Jeff Golding, CEO of WilliamPaid, a Chicago-based company which allows people to build credit through paying their rent online for free. "Lenders are stricter in their underwriting requirements, thus reducing the amount of sub-prime borrowers from those products."

During the recession, many consumers were forced to adhere to their budgets, rely less on their credit cards and cut back on their spending and shopping.

"Consumers may have less plastic in their wallets due to their own choosing or because of a diminished access to credit," said Cunningham. "However, regardless of how many cards a person has, what is important is how he or she manages them."

The growth of the pre-paid card market has eliminated the need for as many credit cards, said Golding. Consumers want the convenience of swiping a card and avoid carrying cash, but are afraid of the debt trap that credit cards can create.

"Using a pre-paid card assists consumers in limiting their spending because if the funds aren't available, you can't make that spur of the moment purchase," he said.

--Written by Ellen Chang for MainStreet

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