Personal Finance

Credit card growth is back to its prerecession high

Key Points
  • Over 171 million consumers now have a credit card.
  • Credit card balances are also creeping higher.
  • Delinquencies remain relatively low.
Credit cards with EMV chips.
PhotonStock | Getty Images

The number of credit card accounts in the U.S. is rising quickly – and is now back to prerecession levels.

To that point, 171 million consumers now have at least one credit card, the highest level since 2005, according to the most recent quarterly report by credit monitoring firm TransUnion.

That works out to about 2.7 credit cards per consumer, TransUnion said, with the total number of cards in circulation now at more than 405 million.

That number peaked at just over 496 million in the second quarter of 2008, and fell sharply during the global financial crisis by 24 percent to about 379 million in the third quarter of 2010, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Trends in the credit card market

Credit Card Metric Q1 2017 Q1 2016 Q1 2015 Q1 2014
Average Debt Per Borrower$5,332 $5,193 $5,144 $5,162
Delinquency Rate (90+ DPD) Per Borrower1.69%1.50%1.34%1.50%
Originations16.00 million16.71 million14.52 million13.53 million

Source: Source: TransUnion

The improving jobs market and low unemployment have increased consumer confidence and boosted the demand for credit cards. At the same time, because originations are a key driver of growth for the industry, card issuers have continued to up the ante with better rewards and sign-up bonuses to attract new customers.

With those reward cards have come increasingly generous credit lines — particularly to those with the best credit. The average total credit line for super-prime consumers (those with a credit score over 781) rose to $33,371 from $29,176 in 2010 (although consumers at the other end of the credit spectrum saw their available credit lines shrink over the same period).

And even though the number of Americans relying on credit has continued to increase since the Great Recession, less than 10 percent of today's cardholders are subprime, or those with credit scores below 600, according to TransUnion.

"Overall, the credit market is performing well," said Nidhi Verma, TransUnion's senior director of research and consulting, "especially as personal income rises."

But in addition to the rising number of card accounts, credit card balances are also steadily creeping higher. Total balances for cards reached $693 billion in the first quarter of 2017, up from $644 billion last year, an increase of more than 7 percent, according to TransUnion.

Household debt by the numbers

  Total owed by average U.S. household carrying this type of debt Total debt owed by U.S. consumers
Credit cards$16,061$747 billion
Mortgages$172,806$8.35 trillion
Auto loans$28,535$1.14 trillion
Student loans$49,042$1.28 trillion
Any type of debt$132,529$12.35 trillion

Source: Source: NerdWallet

Despite the return of high-interest credit card debt, "there's nothing that leads me to believe we are near a tipping point," said Paul Siegfried, senior vice president and credit card business leader for TransUnion. "Household debt, on a percentage basis, remains far from historic highs."

Although credit card delinquency rates of 90 or more days remain low, they increased to 1.69 percent, up from 1.5 percent a year earlier. That's mostly a result of cards issued to subprime borrowers, according to Siegfried.

"The recent surge in subprime cards has contributed to an increase in the card delinquency rate at the start of the year, but from a prerecession, historical perspective, we are still at low levels," he said.