In July 1998, President Clinton gave a speech in which he announced, “Our economy is the strongest it has been in a generation.”
So what did Americans do? Let the good times roll! They ran up their credit cards. In the three months prior to Clinton’s speech – from April to June – unpaid credit card balances topped $53 billion. That record stood unchallenged until this year.
The second quarter of 2023 didn’t feature such a rosy economy. Instead, we have rampant inflation and a lingering COVID hangover. Yet we still charged $43 billion that we haven’t paid off. That’s the worst second quarter since Clinton’s speech.
Those numbers come courtesy of WalletHub, which updates its Credit Card Debt Study every three months. So why focus on the second quarter? Because it might tell us a lot about the rest of the year.
Drilling down to household debt
Of course, talking about billions of dollars doesn’t mean much when the average salary in this country is under $60,000. Fortunately, WalletHub also breaks down those numbers by household. Unfortunately, the results are equally bad.
In the second quarter of this year, the average U.S. household was carrying credit card balances of $10,170. During the second quarter of 2021, it was only $8,754. And yes, those numbers are adjusted for inflation.
Here’s one interpretation of that data from Debt.com president Don Silvestri…
“Running up your credit cards is never a good idea, but in the ‘90s, Americans were in better financial shape to handle their bills,” says Silvestri, who during that decade was an NFL placekicker with the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, and Seattle Seahawks. “Today, I believe Americans are running up their credit cards to merely make ends meet. They’re not buying luxuries like they may have been back then. That’s worrisome for many reasons – but one in particular.”
What the next quarters will reveal
Silvestri points out that the third and fourth quarters of the year are when we usually spend the most. While the second quarter covers summer vacations, the third quarter features back-to-school shopping (which the National Retail Federation says reached all-time highs this year due to inflation) and holiday shopping (which Experian predicts will exceed last year).
“If the second quarter was troubling, I don’t see how the third and fourth quarters are going to get much better,” Silvestri says. “There’s so much pressure to outfit our children for back-to-school, and to give gifts to our friends and family during the winter holidays.”
If there’s any silver lining to WalletHub’s second-quarter result, it’s this: If your credit card balances are growing, you have time to trim them before the holiday season. Cut out extra spending wherever you can and be on the lookout for hidden expenses like old subscriptions you no longer use.
The holidays don’t have to mean a nosedive into debt. Be sensible when it comes to gift giving, and don’t feel pressured to spend what you don’t have.
If your credit card debt is at a personal record high, call us for free at (833) 843-1275. Debt.com can provide the financial guidance you need to be ready for the holidays and beyond.