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Credit card debt closing in on $1 trillion

Credit card balances rapidly catching up with student loans

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A few years ago total student loan debt in the U.S. topped the $1 trillion mark, causing many economists to express concern. Now, a new report from the Federal Reserve shows total credit card debt is rapidly closing in on that milestone.

Overall, the Fed reported that total consumer credit increased in April at a seasonally adjusted rate of 2.5%. Of that total, revolving credit, which includes credit card debt, increased 1.8%.

In breaking down the data, personal finance site WalletHub found that consumers repaid more than $31 billion of their credit card debt in the first quarter, a big improvement over last year. Still, it was below the average first quarter pay-down since the Great Recession, and could be cause for concern.

The stepped-up pay-down came on the heels of a huge run-up in credit card bills last year, so there was a lot to pay off – and a lot still unpaid. Crunching the numbers further, the WalletHub editors project that U.S. consumers will add some $60 billion in new credit card debt in 2017, ending the year with a total balance over the $1 trillion mark.

Cautionary flag

Here's why the WalletHub editors are raising a cautionary flag: last year consumers started the year with a very weak pay-down of credit card debt. It finished the year by adding post-2007 records for new debt in the second, third, and fourth quarters.

“So it is not a question of whether consumers are weakening financially, but rather how long this trend toward pre-recession habits will last and just how bad it will get,” the editors write. “And WalletHub projects that we will end 2017 with more than $60 billion in new credit card debt. That would mean we’d owe well over $1 trillion in credit card debt overall.”

And credit card debt is very expensive debt. The average rate on credit card balances is currently at a record high of 15.83%. While this poses challenges for the economy, it also can put individual households in a bind, limiting their ability to make other purchases.

Credit card management tips

If you are struggling to pay off credit card debt, here are some tips that might make the process more manageable:

  • Make a budget and stick to it. Use any eliminated expenses to pay down credit card balances faster
  • If you can manage to save some money each month, put it toward an emergency fund. It may take a while to build it up, but it can provide a way to pay for an unexpected expense, instead of putting it on plastic.
  • If you have marginal credit, work on improving it. The best way to do that is to pay every bill on time. As your credit score rises, you may be able to qualify for a balance transfer card offering a lengthy introductory 0% interest rate period.
  • If you have more than one credit card balance, work on paying off the highest interest account first.

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