San Antonio tops list of cities with heaviest card debt burden

San Francisco, Minneapolis enjoy lightest payback burden relative to income

Fred O. Williams
Senior Reporter
Expert on consumer credit laws and regulations.

city debt burden

Despite having a robust economy, San Antonio – where unemployment is just 3 percent – shouldered the heaviest burden of credit card debt of 25 large U.S. metropolitan areas, according to an analysis of Experian 2017 credit report data by CreditCards.com.

San Francisco residents had the lightest burden of credit card debt of the group, followed closely by Minneapolis.

We looked at cities’ average card balance in relation to income, using median earnings per worker. By computing how long it would take to pay off the average balance, the analysis measures not just the dollar size of credit card debt, but also how heavily it weighs on consumers’ budgets.

For example, it takes the typical San Antonio worker 22 months to pay off the city's average credit card balance, using 15 percent of their income. The typical earner in San Francisco only needs 13 months to pay off their average balance.

“Some segments of the demographic do tend to hold higher debt levels than others,” said Robert A. Dye, chief economist at Comerica Bank. “There are historical and cultural reasons for that.”

Population age, economic standing, influence card debt burden

Having a good economy and an older population may help keep a city’s debt burden low. Cities with older populations, such as Minneapolis, were able to keep card debt lower because fewer consumers are in their most debt-prone years of setting up a household and raising a family.

Then there are regional attitudes that seem to help some cities do better than others.

While it’s not easy to pinpoint all the traits that help cities manage card debt, the benefits are clear. A low debt burden on cards goes hand-in-hand with other positive economic traits, such as fewer late bill payments and higher credit scores.

Looking at credit scores, “In lower-ranking cities there’s a higher degree of unemployment and education levels aren’t as high,” said Rod Griffin, director of public education at Experian, which provided credit report data for the analysis. “And culturally, there may be a different perspective on banking and borrowing.”

Typical earnings in the metro areas can range from $28,044 in Orlando to $46,536 in Washington, D.C., and its suburbs, a difference of $18,492 or 66 percent. With that kind of spread, it stands to reason that wealthier areas will have an easier time paying off debt.

Indeed, having the second-highest income of the group helps keep San Francisco’s burden low. But San Antonio’s income ranked 22nd, meaning residents have fewer resources to pay down their balances.

But income isn’t destiny. Some lower-earning cities, such as Detroit, are able to keep their debt burdens below many areas with greater income – potentially holding lessons for consumers who want to follow their example.

Credit card debt burden across U.S. major cities

  • In San Antonio it takes 22 months to pay off average card debt, nine months more than San Francisco.
  • Minneapolis had the lowest interest cost during payoff, $493.
  • Detroit, with only the 17th highest income of all 25 major U.S. cities analyzed, had the ninth-lightest debt burden.
  • Riverside-San Bernardino, California, had lowest balance on cards, $5,829, but its low income caused payoff to take 19 months, for 17th place.
  • Three of five heaviest debt-burden cities were in Texas; reasons why include an energy downturn and a younger population.
  • Low debt burden on credit cards is linked to good credit scores, fewer late payments.

Debt problems heating up

The analysis comes at a time when U.S. card balances have regained their previous record levels – and more people are having trouble keeping up with their rising payments.

Big U.S. card issuers are seeing their losses on card loans climb, and the signs of strain are apparent in credit report data.

  • In the 25 metros, card balances in 2017 are up nearly 3 percent from the year before.
  • Serious delinquencies – payments 90 days late more – appeared at least once on 36 percent of credit reports, up from 32 percent.
  • The “utilization rate” of credit, or how much of the available balance is in use, rose to 31 percent, from 30 percent in one year.

“The new record high credit card use is seen by some as a sign of confidence in the economy, but more debt is more potential for financial hardship – especially during times of unemployment and times of reduced income,” said Melinda Opperman, executive vice president of the credit counseling agency Credit.org in an email interview. “It is important for consumers to have an emergency savings account to weather these setbacks.”

"The new record high credit card use is seen by some as a sign of confidence in the economy, but more debt is more potential for financial hardship."

Credit lessons from Detroit: average earnings, light card debt

Most cities stayed near their position on a previous ranking in 2015, indicating that patterns of card use hold steady over time.

In both years, having higher-than-average income was a key factor in keeping card debt burdens low. For 2017, eight of the top 10 cities with the lightest burdens were also in the top ranks for income.

But what about the exceptions? It might be surprising to see Detroit in the No. 9 spot for light card debt. It is not known for robust economic health. Median earnings are only middle-of-the-road, at 17 out of 25. 

But Motown keeps its card burden low with frugal habits. The average consumer’s balance on cards is $5,889 – that’s $699 below the average, or 11 percent less. The low balance keeps interest payoff costs down. Only three cities had lower interest costs during the balance payoff period.

“Detroit has gone through a tremendous economic stressor with the near-collapse of the auto industry in 2008 and ’09,” said Dye of Comerica Bank, which is one of the largest banks in Michigan by deposits. “What we’re seeing now is the repair of that trauma – many people realize they’re still vulnerable to cycles of the auto industry. They’re wary, and they don’t want to repeat that.”

Signs of the scorching that made consumers wary of debt are still visible in their credit reports. Despite low debts and a healthy utilization rate of available credit, the city’s credit score remains below average for the group, held down by defaults in past years.

"Detroit has gone through a tremendous economic stressor with the near-collapse of the auto industry in 2008 and ’09. What we’re seeing now is the repair of that trauma."

Best credit score in the U.S.? Ask Minneapolis

Then there’s Minneapolis. If you want to emulate a city population’s money management, this is the model. San Francisco’s light burden is easy to explain, given the region’s high earnings, second only to Washington.

The Minneapolis metro area manages to outshine other cities with more resources. It posts the best credit score of large U.S. cities year after year.

In 2017, its 709 average VantageScore, according to Experian, bested runner-up San Francisco by a wide, six-point margin. That’s despite a median income that is $6,237 lower. Paychecks are better than average, but still rank only seventh of the group.

And while its payoff period lagged one month behind San Francisco’s, the interest accrued during payoff was slightly lower: $492.76 versus $495.25.

“We know people in Minnesota are managing their credit really well,” said Griffin of Experian. “As to why, it’s hard to say. It may be related to the job market, it may be related to education,” he said. “Or because it’s cold and people don’t go out to buy stuff as much.”

As a credit counselor and manager at Credit Counseling of Minnesota in the Minneapolis suburbs, Raye Ann Hoffman sees how people manage their money first-hand.

“I just think they’re a little bit more conservative in their spending habits,” she said. “When things start to get tight, they tend to pull back,” she said.

For example, “people didn’t go out to dinner as much – if they were going out three times a week, they’ll cut that to one or none.” It’s just in the background or nature of people to be more conservative with their spending, Hoffman said.

On the other hand, lower card debt doesn’t guarantee a lower burden if income isn’t there to pay off the balance.

Riverside-San Bernardino had the lowest balance, at $5,829. But paying that off would take 19 months and $621 in interest. The region’s $28,533 in median earnings was lower than all but two other metros.

"We know people in Minnesota are managing their credit really well ... I just think they’re a little bit more conservative in their spending habits. When things start to get tight, they tend to pull back."

Everything’s bigger in Texas, card debt included

Texas cities account for three of the five places with the heaviest debt burdens. They also had above-average increases in card balances from 2016 to 2017 – led by Houston’s 5.64 percent increase, the largest of all U.S. cities. (The data on card debt was drawn from mid-2017, before Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas Gulf Coast.)

During the same period, jobs recovered from the sharp dip they took during 2014-2016, when a slowdown in the energy industry nearly put Texas into a regional recession.

“Some expansion of credit can be an indication of a healthy household balance sheet,” Dye said. As the job market improves, people may loosen their purse strings and make up for spending that was put off during lean times.

Houston’s jobless rate fell nearly a full point during the year ended in November 2017, from 5.2 percent to 4.3 percent, still higher than the U.S. average. “As households get more comfortable, they may make more purchases,” Dye said.

Indeed, the economy looks solid for the Lone Star state. In San Antonio, with the heaviest card balance, unemployment was just 3 percent in November 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost a full percentage point better than the U.S. average.

 

Video: 4 young adult money mistakes to avoid

So why the heavy debt burden? A younger population may have much to do with it. The median age in San Antonio metro area was 32.9 in 2015, substantially below the U.S. average of 37.8. In the Minneapolis metro, by comparison, the median age was four years older, at 36.9.

Younger people just use more of their available credit to power through the expenses of starting and supporting a family, Griffin said. “I think it’s the life cycle,” he said. “It’s related to youth, education and kids – you’re buying homes, you’re buying uniforms. Kids are expensive.”

How we measured debt burdens

  • To measure debt burdens, CreditCards.com computed how long it would take to pay off the average credit card debt using 15 percent of the median earnings in each city. Why 15 percent? It's a rule of thumb that some credit counselors recommend for paying off debt – although more is better.
  • The figures for average credit card debt come from Experian, the big credit bureau, which sampled 15 million credit reports in mid-2017. The average excludes store cards and inactive cards. Only consumers with at least some balance on their card are included.
  • Median earnings came from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which measures earnings of people age 16 and over. The median is the midpoint of earnings, where 50 percent of workers have less and 50 percent have more. That makes it a better measure of “typical” earnings than the average, which is skewed higher by few people with very high earnings.
  • Then, CreditCards.com’s payoff calculator was used to calculate the months needed to pay off the debt for each metro, and the interest costs incurred. The interest rate used was the 13 percent rate average applied to all credit card plans from the Federal Reserve’s Consumer Credit report for all credit card accounts.
  • Something to note: The average balance figures include “transactor” balances that will be paid in full by the due date, avoiding interest. For an individual, a high balance doesn’t necessarily mean a greater debt burden. But on the scale of a metropolitan area, a higher average balance means more debt.

See related: Cities with the biggest, smallest debt burdens (2015 study), Guide to rising credit card interest rates


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Updated: 08-17-2018