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Fed survey says consumers' card discipline is holding firm

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The Great Recession may be receding into history, but families continue to keep their credit card debt in check, avoiding a return to their free-spending habits, a new federal report indicates.

Once every three years, the Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances provides a look at Americans' finances at the family level -- the economic unit that most working-age people live within. Other analyses are more frequent, but track finances at only the individual level.

Median debts, 2010-2013

The 2013 survey edition released  Thursday says that families' debt burdens, adjusted for inflation, have fallen since the 2010 survey for most forms of financial obligations, credit cards among them.

  • The average debt on families' cards fell 25 percent over the three year period, from $7,600 to $5,700.
  • The median debt, or the midpoint for families, also fell. It was down 18 percent, from $2,800 to $2,300.
  • Families who carry a balance on cards fell from 39.4 percent to 38.1 percent.

Disciplined consumers aren't the only factor driving down card debt, economists say.

"A lot of that has to do with availability" of credit, said Scott Hoyt, senior director of consumer economics at Moodys.com. "It's a lot harder for marginal borrowers to get cards now than it was before the recession."

The Fed survey also gave support to the idea that the nature of card use is changing. The fraction of people saying they use cards for convenience, without carrying a balance, was 64 percent, the highest level since at least 2001. The slice of convenience users was 63 percent in 2010 and 56.2 percent in 2007.

It will be hard to know if the switch to convenience is permanent until lenders loosen their grip on cards, Hoyt said.

Consumers in the Fed's 2013 survey, which was based on 6,026 interviews, said tight credit is easing slightly across all forms of borrowing. The response to questions about being turned down for a loan "indicates that ... fewer families were credit constrained in 2013 than in 2010," Fed economists wrote in their analysis of the survey. Those turned down, or who didn't apply for fear of being turned down, fell to 27.6 percent in 2013, from 28.3 percent in 2010.

Another Fed survey, of senior loan officers, indicates that credit conditions are easing gradually, but not keeping pace with consumers' desire for more loans.

The reduced debt burden on cards came as families leaned less heavily on borrowing in general. The average debt load for families that have debt fell to $122,300 in 2013, from $140,000 in 2010. Much of the decline was laid at the doorstep of housing-related obligations, as families with home-secured debt declined to 42.9 percent, from 47 percent.

The exception to the falling debt load was education related loans. "The level of education loan debt held by U.S. families has increased dramatically over the past decade," Fed economists wrote.

About 38 percent of young families had education debt in 2013, up from 22.4 percent in 2001. For 5.6 percent of young families, the education debt burden was more than $100,000 in 2013. In 2001, only 0.6 percent had education debt that heavy.

See related: Fed survey: Recession shrank card debt, crushed household wealth

Published: September 4, 2014


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