Use of credit cards, personal loans surges, but 'it's not a red flag,’ expert says

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There's no doubt Americans are falling deeper in debt.

As prices jump across the board, consumers are increasingly relying on credit cards to make ends meet.

The number of people with credit cards and personal loans hit record highs in the second quarter of 2022, according to TransUnion's latest credit industry insights report released Thursday.

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The tally of total credit cards, alone, exceeded 500 million for the first time ever, led by originations among Generation Z, or young adults ages 18 to 25.

Overall, an additional 233 million new credit accounts were opened in the second quarter, the most since 2008, according to a separate report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Credit card balances also jumped 13% during that time, notching the largest year-over-year increase in more than 20 years.

The strongest indicator of whether somebody can pay their bills or not is whether they have a job.

Michele Raneri

vice president of U.S. research and consulting at TransUnion

Still, experts say the jump in usage isn't a sign of trouble, just yet.

"I'm not seeing anything that I would really declare as a red flag," according to Michele Raneri, TransUnion's vice president of U.S. research and consulting.

'Delinquencies are ticking up'

Dan Brownsword | Image Source | Getty Images

As the number of credit card accounts in the U.S. rises, more new customers are subprime borrowers, generally meaning those with a credit score of 600 or below, according to TransUnion, in part because of the flood of younger borrowers gaining access to credit cards. 

At the same time, "delinquencies are ticking up and approaching what they were before the pandemic," said Raneri. "But that doesn't necessarily mean that it's bad," she added.

As lenders expanded access, delinquencies rose but remained near "normal" levels, the report found. TransUnion defines a delinquency as a payment that's 60 days or more overdue.

Employment is 'the strongest indicator' of repayment

"The strongest indicator of whether somebody can pay their bills or not is whether they have a job," according to Raneri.

The July jobs report showed that the labor market remains strong despite other signs of economic weakness. The unemployment rate dropped to its lowest level since 1969 and average hourly earnings are up 5.2% from a year ago.

"Consumers are facing several challenges that are impacting their finances on a day-to-day basis, namely high inflation and rising interest rates," Raneri said. "These challenges, though, are happening against a backdrop where employment opportunities are still plentiful and jobless levels remain low."

As long as "people have jobs," she added, "they can figure out more of the day to day."

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