More than 8 million consumers stopped using credit cards over the past year. The decline stems from a combination of consumer choices and bank actions.
An analysis by credit reporting agency TransUnion found that use of general purpose credit cards bearing MasterCard or Visa logos, or issued by Discover or American Express, fell more than 11 percent in the third quarter, compared with the July to September period last year.
About 62 million people now have an active card, compared with 70 million a year ago.
The Chicago company found that consumers in the subprime category, or those with low credit ratings, were believed to be without cards mostly because they were shut down by banks after payments fell behind or balances were written off.
"One can quite reasonably infer that's not voluntary," said Ezra Becker, vice president of research and consulting in TransUnion's financial services business unit. Banks have written off record amounts of credit card balances in recent years.
But a significant portion of the decrease in card usage reflects decisions by cardholders to stop using credit, Becker said. "They're simply either not purchasing as much or paying down balances."
Many of these individuals may have shifted to using debit cards. In the past several years the use of debit cards has grown steadily and now surpasses credit card use in both the number of transactions and dollar volume. Interest rate increases by credit card companies and reduced credit lines have contributed to that trend.
Still that doesn't mean consumers are shunning credit altogether. The average card balance stood at $4,964 in the quarter. That represented a slight increase from $4,951 at the end of the second quarter, and the first quarter-over-quarter increase in a more than a year.
Yet it also reflects a 13 percent drop from $5,612 at the end of Sept. 2009.
Becker said the balance increase from the second quarter is mostly an indication that consumers are still under stress. Prior to the recession, he said, carrying a credit card balance was more of a lifestyle decision reflecting spending choices. "Now it's out of necessity," he said. "In times of financial distress, nobody wants to carry a balance. Where people can afford to pay things down, they do."
Unlike mortgages, credit card delinquencies are in a normal range. The rate of late payments continued to fall in the third quarter. Just 0.83 percent of payments were past due by 90 days or more, compared with 0.92 percent in the prior year period.
Becker said late card payment rates have varied widely over time, but haven't skyrocketed to anywhere near what was seen in mortgage delinquencies during the recession.
That's partly because with unemployment high, credit cards became more important for cash-strapped consumers who needed them to purchase necessities like groceries and gasoline, so they kept their payments current.
The third-quarter delinquency rate was highest in Nevada, at 1.28 percent, and Florida, at 1.09 percent. These two states have also been among the hardest hit by the housing crash and foreclosure crisis. Late payments were lowest in North Dakota, at 0.48 percent and South Dakota, at 0.53 percent.
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