Reality Check: Half Of Households Have No Credit Card Debt

by : Debbie Dragon

If you've ever heard that the average household carries $9,000 of credit card debt and thought that you were ok with your balance, think again. In reality, half of American households have no credit card debt at all and nearly a quarter more have less than $2,200 in credit card debt.

There are both times to have and places to carry debt, even large amounts of it. But at no time should the place to carry that debt be a credit card. For many, credit cards are a strategic financial tool used for interest free loans, travel rewards and even cash back. For others, credit cards are an extension of income and that is when things can go very wrong.

There was an article published recently at with the results of a study fielded by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Media and sponsored by that was touted as a "benchmark report [that] delves into every aspect of credit cards' role in people's lives: how Americans use, manage, understand, select, and feel about credit cards."

One paragraph in Taking Charge: America's Relationship with Credit Cards reads: "By some estimates, the average American household has over $9,300 in credit card debt. Yet, despite Americans' concern about their spending habits, few people are willing to own up to their balances: over 90 percent of survey respondents believe they had the same amount - or less - debt as the average American."

The report wanted us to believe that everyone either lies about their credit card debt or that they are in denial about it. The response however matches the numbers from the Federal Reserve Board's Survey of Consumer Finances. More than 90 percent of American households do have less than $9,300 in credit card debt. The respondents weren't lying or in denial. The question that was asked implied that the average American has more than four times the amount of debt they actually have, so they all said, "No, I have less."

When you take all the credit card debt there is and divide it by the number of people who have that debt, you would end up with a figure of around $9,000, giving you, yes, the average credit card debt. But what the average number doesn't tell you is that if my brother and I are eating a Dilly Bar at Dairy Queen with Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, the average net worth between the four of us is $22.5 billion. In reality, my brother and I have nothing and Warren and Bill have it all. You see the problem with average.

For an update on the numbers, the Federal Reserve Board should conclude this month with their 2007 Survey of Consumer Finances. This survey dates back to 1962, but has been conducted triennially since 1983 to provide a representative picture of what Americans own-from houses and cars to stocks and bonds. It also gives an updated view of how and how much consumers borrow and how they bank. Naturally, the numbers go up, about the same, every year. From 1990 to 2000 debt doubled.

"The results of the survey will fill a gap in our knowledge about the financial circumstances of different types of households," Ben S. Bernanke, Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, said in a letter to prospective survey participants. Past study results have been important in policy discussions regarding pension and social security reform, tax policy, deposit insurance reform, consumer debt and a broad range of other issues.

Summary results for the 2007 study will be published in early 2009 after all data from the survey have been assessed and analyzed. Until then, we now have the finalized data from the 2004 survey.

According to the 2004 Survey of Consumer Finance, more than half of all households, 53.8 percent have no credit card debt. About half that number, a quarter of all households, report having no credit card whatsoever. The other chunk, nearly 29 percent of all households, pay off their balances every month.

Of the 46 or so percent of households that carry some amount of credit card debt, the median balance, or the number in the middle, is $2,200. That means that half of the roughly 46 percent of American households that carry credit card debt have less than $2,200 in credit card debt; the other half owes more.

If all the numbers from the 2004 Survey of Consumer Finances are understood and interpreted correctly, that would indicate only 23 percent of households have more than $2,200 in credit card debt. About 8.3 percent of them carry $9,000 or more. In other words: it is not normal to have high amounts of credit card debt. If you have it, you have a problem that needs to be fixed.

There are many ways people acquire credit card debt: medical emergency, car breakdown, tuition and books, and impulse buys. Everyone must know that their balances should be paid off every month. Carrying a long-time balance is incredibly costly, and not just in monetary terms. If you have credit card debt admitting there is a problem is the first step, then getting help. Help is out there.