CHARTS: Americans Increasingly Paying Off Their Credit Cards

Credit card balances are falling, and people are increasingly paying off their balances.

Credit card logos are seen on a downtown storefront as a pedestrian passes in Atlanta on July 18, 2012.
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The recession hurt wages, made people eat less healthily, and may have even boosted infidelity. Now, chalk up one more effect of the recession: It changed the way we use credit cards.

A growing share of Americans are regularly paying off their full credit card balances than were prior to the recession, according to data released Tuesday by the American Bankers Association. The trade group's quarterly figures show that in the second quarter of 2013, 28.7 percent of all credit card accounts were "transactor" accounts – industry-speak for accounts whose balances are paid off in full each month. That's a nearly 50 percent increase since the start of 2008, early in the Great Recession. At that time, only 19 percent of accounts were in this category.

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During the same period, the share of accounts with no activity ("dormant" accounts in the chart above) and those that carry over some portion of the balance from month to month ("revolver" accounts) shrank.

"I think consumers still feel the effects of the recession, and as a result are managing their debt more conservatively," says Kenneth Clayton, executive director of the American Bankers Association's Card Policy Council.

That trend of paying down balances has also shown up in the total amount of credit card debt.

While Americans may be becoming more fastidious about their credit cards, that decline in outstanding debt may also be partly due to banks' increased pickiness about to whom to give credit. According to ABA data, nearly 52 percent of cardholders have a credit score of 759 or greater, compared to just 41 percent in 2009. These high-credit-score individuals may be more likely to pay down their debt than other borrowers.

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However, even with a recovering economy and high standards for credit card usage, an enduring population of people relies on credit cards just to get by, says one expert.

"A lot of people were definitely burned in this crisis, and are more cautions about taking on credit. [But] I also think there is this base of the consumers that continues to use and need credit in order to cover monthly living expenses," says Michelle Jones, senior vice president at CredAbility, a nonprofit credit counseling organization. These lower-income families rely heavily on credit, and that has not changed since the recession, she adds.

"I do think it's the middle- and higher-income families that have been contributing to the larger paydown in credit card debt," she says.

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