NEW YORK -- Contrary to the perception that consumers are diligently paying what they owe, Americans are actually plunging deeper into debt, with the risk of soon wiping out this year's progress, according to a new study.
In the years leading up to the financial crisis, many Americans spent beyond their means, as opportunities to tap the rising value of homes and stock portfolios became irresistible. This culture of extravagance quickly became unsustainable when the global economy tanked, and millions of Americans found themselves saddled with debts they couldn't pay. The common refrain in the years after the crash has been that consumers need to save more, to cut down on luxuries and to try to spend money they actually earn.
But according to a new study, any progress we've made in that direction is being reversed. Americans accumulated $6.5 billion in credit card debt between July and September, according to the study from CardHub. Between April and September, the study says, consumers increased their debt by 11 percent over the same period last year. Although consumers made significant progress paying down their debt during the first months of 2010, they're now on track to erase that gain by year's end.
"The state of the economy was unsustainable. It was a bubble," said CardHub CEO Odysseas Papadimitriou. "My fear here is that people are thinking that once we go out of this recession, they can move back to that level of spending they had previously, which is what got us into trouble in the first place."
An economic recovery is still a long way off. With unemployment stuck at 9.8 percent, Americans on the whole don't have the income to justify taking on more debt. After the crisis hit, one in seven Americans who had never before had credit problems -- people with good credit scores -- defaulted on their debt. The underlying cause, for the most part, was a lack of solid jobs.
A common perception, meanwhile, has been that consumers have diligently been reducing their debt. Indeed, according to the raw number in the recent CardHub report, credit card debt decreased by $10.3 billion during the third quarter. But that disguises a key fact -- namely, that credit card companies wrote off $16.8 billion of debt during that period, accepting losses for loans that wouldn't be paid back. Consumers, then, ballooned their debt by $6.5 billion.
At this rate, Papadimitriou said, consumers will have erased this year's progress by the end of the fourth quarter. And there's even a "small risk" of ending up the year with more debt than they started with.
The problem, he said, is that in consumers' minds, "luxuries quickly become necessities."
"[It has] registered into our minds that this is not a luxury, it's a necessity: We need to have that car, we need to have that cell phone, we need to have that cable package," he said. "It becomes impossible to find ways to downsize when everything is a necessity."