Americans are Clueless About Their Credit Card Debt

Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.

Here’s an interesting little chart that requires a bit of explanation. For five different categories, it compares the number of households who think they have outstanding loans (solid lines labeled “SCF”) vs. the number of loans that lenders think they’ve given out (dashed lines labeled “Panel”). It provides this comparison for six different age groups. Needless to say, the lender data is highly accurate, so any difference between the two lines means that borrowers are kidding themselves about whether they have any outstanding debt.

For example, the blue lines represent auto loans, and they’re pretty close to each other for all age groups. This means that households have a pretty good idea of whether they owe any money on their cars. Ditto for mortgage loans, home equity loans, and student loans.

But then there’s credit card debt, represented by the red lines. They’re way far apart. In the four working age categories, about 50% of households think they have outstanding credit card debt, but the credit card companies themselves think about 80% of households have outstanding balances. And this shows up in the aggregates, too. Households think they have a total of about $390 billion in credit card debt, while credit card companies think that households owe them about $820 billion.

When I first saw this, I immediately thought I knew the problem. If I were surveyed about credit card debt, I’d report that I didn’t have any. That’s because I pay off my cards every month. But the card companies are probably totting up the charges I’ve already made this month and counting it as outstanding debt. Discrepancy solved!

But guess what? The Fed economists who wrote this report aren’t idiots! They thought of this too:

Reasons for the greater than 50 percent raw difference in aggregate credit card balances may include that (i) unlike the CCP households, SCF households may not have any member with a credit report, (ii) unlike the CCP households, SCF households may omit credit card convenience uses that they intend to repay within the billing cycle and (iii) SCF households may not report business uses of personal credit cards that nevertheless appear on households’ combined credit reports. We make generous allowances for explanations (i) through (iii), including attributing all credit card charges observed within the most recent payment cycle to convenience uses, and find that a 34 percentage point gap in aggregate credit card debt remains.

So what is the answer? The authors don’t have one. Those three explanations are all they have, and even when they control for them there’s still a huge gap remaining. The simplest explanation is probably the right one: American consumers just don’t have any idea how much credit card debt they have.

Via Counterparties.

THE TRUTH...

is the first thing despots go after. An unwavering commitment to it is probably what draws you to Mother Jones' journalism. And as we're seeing in the US and the world around, authoritarians seek to poison the discourse and the way we relate to each other because they can't stand people coming together around a shared sense of the truth—it's a huge threat to them.

Which is also a pretty great way to describe Mother Jones' mission: People coming together around the truth to hold power accountable.

And right now, we need to raise about $400,000 from our online readers over the next two months to hit our annual goal and make good on that mission. Read more about the information war we find ourselves in and how people-powered, independent reporting can and must rise to the challenge—and please support our team's truth-telling journalism with a donation if you can right now.

payment methods

THE TRUTH...

is the first thing despots go after. An unwavering commitment to it is probably what draws you to Mother Jones' journalism. And as we're seeing in the US and the world around, authoritarians seek to poison the discourse and the way we relate to each other because they can't stand people coming together around a shared sense of the truth—it's a huge threat to them.

Which is also a pretty great way to describe Mother Jones' mission: People coming together around the truth to hold power accountable.

And right now, we need to raise about $400,000 from our online readers over the next two months to hit our annual goal and make good on that mission. Read more about the information war we find ourselves in and how people-powered, independent reporting can and must rise to the challenge—and please support our team's truth-telling journalism with a donation if you can right now.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate