When Do Americans First Get Addicted to Debt?


Americans don’t waste any time picking up a credit card habit.

Between the ages of 20 and 30, young Americans typically see their credit card limits skyrocket 450% while their debt rises an alarming 300%, according to a recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

Young adults tend to use their credit cards as a substitute for savings by getting higher credit limits that can help them out in emergencies, says Bloomberg in a story on the Fed report. And once they’ve dipped their toes in, Americans continue to count on their credit cards: 50-year-olds use nearly 40% of their available credit compared with the 50% used by 20-year-olds.

The Fed data shows that debt rises rapidly for Americans in their 20s, before they learn how to pay off credit card debt, and it continues to increase into their 30s. It’s only when American consumers reach middle age that their credit card use levels off. When consumers reach the age of 50, their card use declines and drops to around 20% by the time they hit their 70s.

“Credit and debt show extreme life-cycle variation, much larger than the changes in income or consumption,” Boston Fed authors Scott L. Fulford and Scott Schuh conclude.

Strikingly, Americans who use their credit cards the most are more likely to keep on piling up the debt if they receive a credit limit increase. “Revolver” card users – meaning those who carry a balance from month to month as opposed to “convenience” users who pay off their balance every month – will increase their debt by 1.3% in just three months if they receive a 10% credit limit increase. As a result, the Fed finds, their debt will rise nearly 10% over time.

Only about 35% of American card users between the ages of 25 and 50 are convenience users, while the rest of credit consumers revolve their debt from month to month despite high interest charges.

Getting out of debt is the best way for 20-somethings to begin saving earlier in life, the Fed authors suggest. They note that consumers who opt to revolve debt may be using their credit availability in the mistaken belief that it is a form of wealth.

“Paying off credit card debt has a riskless return that averages around 14%, which no other asset class can match,” Fulford and Schuh write.

Your debt may be having an impact on your credit scores as well. Your credit utilization is the second most important factor in your credit score, and if you’re spending over 30% of your limits, it may be dragging you down. You can check your credit utilization and get two of your credit scores for free every month on Credit.com.

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