Overall, debt is down, but Texas, Georgia, Florida cities are all well-represented in the list of cities whose citizens rack up the most card debt
Residents of those areas dominate a newly released list of the top 25 U.S. cities with the most credit card debt at the end of last year. Many people may have overdone it during the holidays and, more than likely, they still are dealing with the aftermath, according to the study by Experian, a major financial and information services company best known by consumers as one of the three major credit bureaus in the U.S.
“The message is that you need to be aware of the balance that you’re carrying, and you need to make sure that you can carry it with some comfort,” said Rod Griffin, Experian’s director of public education. “Any kind of financial hiccup could be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
According to the survey, the average U.S. credit card holder owed more than $4,200 at the end of December. Fortunately, that’s a decline of about 4 percent compared to the end of December 2009 and 8 percent compared to December 2007.
“It appears that consumers are reducing their credit card debt, and that’s a very positive thing because it shows that they are managing to pay their bills,” Griffin said.
Fewer cards in the wallet
At the same time, the average number of bank-issued credit cards has declined to 1.97 cards per customer, a drop of 23 percent since 2007. That’s a mixed blessing, however. Here’s why: With fewer cards in their wallets, Americans are tapping more of each card’s available balance. The result is that consumers are using more than 30 percent of their total available bank card balance — a jump of nearly 10 percentage points since 2007.
“We want consumers to understand that overspending at the holidays or at any other time of year can often have broader implications to their overall fiscal fitness,” said Maxine Sweet, vice president of public education at Experian. “By carrying over credit card balances and utilizing a significant portion of their available balance, they can potentially negatively affect their credit scores, which can in turn, hurt them when it comes to applying for other types of credit down the line, including mortgages and car loans.”
The Alamo city’s cry: ‘Charge!’
Leading the way, so to speak, in this unenviable category are residents of San Antonio. The average bank card balance there at the end of last year was $5,177 — 23 percent higher than the national average.
At first blush, that would seem to be pretty bad news for the people who live there, suggesting some degree of economic stress, but … maybe not.
“I don’t know whether that’s good news or bad news,” said Denise Surratt, director of counseling and education for the Consumer Counseling Credit Service of Greater San Antonio. “I’m not seeing them come through the door [in greater numbers], so they must be able to handle the credit card debt.”
She said the military has a large presence in the area and, partially as a result, employment and the rest of the economy tend to be relatively stable.
“This survey isn’t saying that they’re not paying their bills, only that they have taken out a good bit of credit,” Surratt said. “That could be telling us that they’re not too worried about layoffs and they feel more comfortable about using credit.”
Griffin agreed that the survey did not touch on the subject of debt delinquency and he said that Surratt’s theory may carry some weight. In the No. 2 slot, close behind San Antonio, came the residents of Jacksonville, Fla., with an average credit card burden of $5,115. That area’s economy also is largely dependent on the military.
He said Experian, which helps businesses manage credit risk and consumers check their creditworthiness, conducted the study “to draw attention to the importance of credit reports and scores.”
Florida, Texas, Georgia lead the debt pack
All in all, Florida placed four cities (Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Miami and Orlando) on the top-25 list. Texas (San Antonio, Dallas and Austin) and Georgia (Atlanta, August and Savannah) were also heavily represented.
Whatever the reason, economic stability or economic hardship, credit counselors say residents of those states and the rest of the country would be well advised to restrain their dependence on credit cards, whenever possible.
Sweet reminded consumers of common sense tips such as assessing their overall financial situation, first paying down the credit cards that carry the highest interest rates, and considering the use of tax refunds to lower credit card debts.
“It’s important for consumers to get that debt under control before it has a lasting impact on their credit scores,” she said.
Surratt, meanwhile, took a broader view.
“You really need to think about what it is you’re buying and how much you’re spending, especially when you take the interest into account,” she said. “The more you buy in cash or the quicker you pay off the full balance, the better off you will be.”
See related: Consumer card debt rises