How available is credit for U.S. consumers and how are we using it? Our research team investigates the trends in statistics.
Access to credit is one of the backbones of the American economy, but who uses credit, and how much credit is being used?
The December 2019 New York Federal Reserve Credit Access Survey found that 45.8% of respondents applied for credit during the previous year, a slight uptick over the reported applications for the previous year. The application rate for credit cards remained steady at 27.5%, similar to the previous year.1
In addition, data from Experian reveals the millennial generation is not as credit-averse as some have speculated. It found that cardholders in that generation, aged 23 to 38, increased their average credit card debt by 7% over the past year, the second-largest increase by any generation in that time frame. This data could signal that millennials are getting more comfortable using credit cards, according to Experian.2
Millennials were beaten out only by Generation Z, which also saw a significant increase in credit card debt. Cardholders in this generation, aged 18 to 22, saw an 11% increase in their credit card balances between Q1 2018 and Q1 2019.2
Between October 2018 and October 2019, 30.9% of those 40 years old and younger had applied for a credit card, while 31.5% of 41- to 59-year-olds and only 19.7% of those 60 or older had put in applications.1
See related: Credit card ownership statistics
Number of consumers rejected for credit dips
The New York Fed also reported that the rejection rate for credit applications decreased to 17.6% in 2019, down from an average of 19.9% in 2018. The decrease was driven by consumers over age 60 and those with high credit scores, over 760.1
The share of those surveyed who said that they were too discouraged to apply for credit over the past 12 months despite needing it, was 6.4% in 2019, just slightly up from 6.3% in 2018.1
Are credit limits rising or falling?
Just as consumers’ access to new credit accounts is an important indicator of credit access, it’s also helpful to look at average credit limits, including existing accounts.
The TransUnion Q1 2019 Industry Insight Report shows the average credit line in Q1 2019 was $8,541, up from $8,042 in Q1 2010.3 The average credit line has remained relatively steady over the past few years, according to the CFPB.6
But it’s a different story for subprime consumers. For those consumers, the average credit line actually fell to just $2,421, down from $3,083 in Q1 2010 “as lenders mitigated their exposure,” according to the TransUnion report.3
In fact, consumers with subprime and deep subprime scores have seen declines every year since 2015 in the average new line per general-purpose credit card account.6 The average new general-purpose credit card issued in 2018 to a consumer with a deep subprime score had a credit limit of just $576, down 17% from 2015.6
On the other hand, consumers with prime and superprime scores are now receiving higher limits. The average initial line for prime cardholders in 2018 was $4,440, which is up 10% from 2015.6
See related: Credit card debt is Americans’ biggest financial regret, study shows
Credit utilization rates
It should come as no surprise that the total amount of credit card debt in the U.S. peaked at the height of the credit crisis (2009) at $865 billion. By 2014, credit card debt fell to $648 billion, but it has climbed since then. In fact, the total amount of outstanding revolving debt stood at $1.086 trillion in November 2019.4
On an individual level, the average credit card balance per consumer in 2019 was $6,629, and our credit utilization rates remained steady at 30%.7
The average overall nonmortgage debt per consumer as of the end of 2019 was $25,386.7
Credit card balance and utilization statistics, 2017-2019
|Average number of credit cards||3.06||3.04||3.1|
|Average credit card balances||$6,354||$6,506||$6,629|
|Average revolving utilization||30%||30%||30%|
Source: Experian State of Credit 2019
How often do Americans use their credit cards?
The overall use of credit cards has fluctuated with the business cycle. Measured by the share of individuals with at least one card, participation peaked in the second quarter of 2008 at 68% of borrowers and then declined sharply to 59% during the Great Recession.
How good your credit score is will determine how likely you are to use your credit card. For example, Americans with good or excellent credit scores didn’t see a large drop in card usage during the last recession.
Credit card purchase volume is now growing much more quickly than debt, according to a 2019 report, “The Consumer Credit Card Market,” from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Purchase volume grew 30% from 2015 to 2018, while balances grew 20%, credit lines grew 17% and account incidence, the number of consumers with accounts, grew 10%.
Balances and credit limits have just recently surpassed their prerecession highs, and account incidence has yet to do so.6
General-purpose credit card payments made up 91.5% of all credit card payments in 2018.8 The 2018 purchase volume for general-purpose credit cards was $3.7 trillion, almost double its prerecession high.6
Much of this growth was driven by superprime and prime consumers pulling out their credit cards. Consumers with superprime credit scores accounted for 82% of this spending, while consumers with prime scores accounted for 13%.6
The number of credit card payments reached 44.7 billion in 2018, with a value of $3.98 trillion, up 11 billion from 2015.8
Credit card payments grew at an annual rate of 9.9% by number or 9.3% by value from 2015 to 2018.
These numbers reflect a continuing decrease in the average value of credit card payments. In 2018, the average value of a credit card payment was $89, down from $91 in 2015.8
How Americans prefer to use their credit cards
Americans use different methods of payment depending on the type of purchases they are making.
A TSYS 2018 U.S. Consumer Payment Study, released in 2019, found that debit cards were the preferred method of payment at all types of stores, including supermarkets (62%), dine-in restaurants (47%), discount stores (45%), and department stores (42%).
The percentage of consumers who chose debit as their preferred payment method this year was the highest in the history of the survey. Credit cards were a close second choice at department stores and dine-in restaurants (both 34%).9
Consumers are less likely to reach for a credit card for inexpensive purchases, a finding that shows up when examining payment preferences by restaurant type. For example, 34% of those surveyed indicated they preferred to use a credit card at dine-in restaurants, as opposed to 18% at fast-food restaurants, and just 13% at coffee shops.
When it comes to bill payments, consumers again are more likely to reach for their debit cards About half use debit for both one-time and recurring bills, compared with about 20% who use a credit card.9
Finally, the TSYS survey found that both contactless credit card payments and P2P payments, transferring money to friends and family through the use of apps such as Venmo and Zelle, are “poised for significant growth.” Forty-four percent of survey respondents reported using P2P payments, up from 29% the previous year.9
- Federal Reserve Bank of New York Credit Access Survey, released December 2019
- Experian, “Millennials carry lower than average credit card debt, but it’s growing quickly,” July 2019
- TransUnion Q1 2019 Industry Insights Report, June 2019
- Federal Reserve November 2019 Consumer Credit Report, released January 2020
- Federal Reserve Bank of New York: Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit Q3 2019, November 2019
- Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, “The Consumer Credit Market,” August 2019
- Experian State of Credit Report, December 2019
- The 2019 Federal Reserve Payments Study
- TSYS 2018 U.S. Consumer Payment Study, released 2019