Throughout the pandemic, as millions of Americans were unemployed and struggling to put food on tables, credit-card debt declined.
But that has now changed.
In the second quarter of 2021, credit-card debt increased by $17 billion quarter on quarter to $79 billion, according to New York Federal Reserve data published on Tuesday. Still, it has not yet reached pre-pandemic levels.
To put the latest figures in context: In the last quarter of 2019, U.S. credit card debt was $93 billion, according to data from the New York Federal Reserve’s Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit.
In the second quarter of 2021, credit-card debt fell by $17 billion quarter on quarter to $79 billion.
Stimulus checks, enhanced unemployment benefits, mortgage forbearance and the student-loan relief allowed many Americans to pay down credit-card debt they’d been accumulating for years.
Last year, consumers on average cut their credit-card debt by 14%, according to Experian data. This helped contribute to a 3.5 percentage-point drop in credit-utilization rates from 2019 to 2020.
That’s still well below 2019 levels but signifies that U.S. consumers potentially hit an inflection point in terms of paying off credit-card debt.
Earlier this year and for the majority of 2020, consumers had fewer opportunities to go out and spend money as a result of lockdowns than they do now.
And indeed, consumer spending jumped by an annualized pace of 11.8% last quarter, according to the most recent GDP report. The increase is four times faster than the typical increase each quarter.
In the second quarter of 2021, the total credit limit for U.S. consumers increased for the first time in a year to $3.87 trillion.
But without a fourth round of stimulus checks and an additional $300 a week in unemployment benefits in 26 states that prematurely cut recipients off, more Americans are dipping into their savings to pay off their credit cards.
That’s contributing to the higher credit card balances, New York Fed researchers said on a call with reporters Tuesday.
Another sign of confidence in the U.S. economy: In the second quarter of 2021, the total credit limit for U.S. consumers increased for the first time in a year to $3.87 trillion.
Over the course of the pandemic, lenders gradually lowered the amount of money consumers could spend using their credit cards.
At the beginning of 2020, the total credit limit for U.S. consumers was $3.93 trillion. By the end of last year, it fell to $3.84 billion, according to New York Fed data.
At the individual level, the Fed researchers said consumers are seeing that it’s easier than before the pandemic to request a higher credit limit or get approved for a credit card in the first place.