Gone are the days when Americans didn't think twice about splurging on a second pair of Italian-made leather brogues, a flat-screen TV for the bathroom or a new made-to-measure suit for the office.
A new bill passed by the Senate on May 19--which is designed to tighten rules on credit-card interest rates--might keep consumers from letting their spending get out of control again. But one could argue that such measures are unnecessary, as we're throwing down the charge card less and less these days anyway.
In March 2009, outstanding consumer debt fell by $11.1 billion to $2.55 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve. Revolving debt in particular--which consists mostly of credit card debt--fell for the sixth month in a row by $5.4 billion to $945.9 billion.
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However, some Americans don't seem to understand the errors of their past ways. The nation is still deeply indebted to credit card companies--and that isn't changing anytime soon.
"People are tightening their belts temporarily," says Terrence Daryl Shulman, an addiction expert and founder of the Shuman Center for compulsive theft and spending. "But I'm not convinced that they're 'cured.'"
Consider the residents of Miami, Fla. The metropolis has fully felt the effects of the real estate crash, including a 12% decrease in hotel occupancy for the first quarter of 2009, an increase in unemployment to 8.5% in March 2009 and a 9% year-over-year increase in foreclosures for April 2009. Yet, on average, Miamians owe more of their personal income to credit card companies than those in any other area of the U.S.
While the median household income is a moderate $43,333--the national average is $50,233--average credit card debt in each home is $9,797.38. That means to pay off outstanding credit card bills, debtors would have to forgo 22.61% of their incomes.
Other areas where Americans continue to spend far more than they earn include Tampa, Fla., where the average household owes 17.1% of its total income; Los Angeles, where it's 16.81%; Jacksonville, Fla., which owes 16.38% on average; and Orlando, Fla., indebted by 16.37%.
Behind the Numbers
To determine where Americans are still overspending, we turned to Atlanta, Ga.-based Equifax, one of the three largest consumer credit reporting agencies in the country. From its database, Equifax determined total credit card debt in each of the 50 largest metropolitan statistical areas and metropolitan divisions from the first quarter of 2009. We found the average credit card debt per home by dividing the number of households in each metro area, determined by the U.S. Census Bureau, by the overall debt of the area. (Defined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, metro areas are used by federal agencies in collecting, tabulating and publishing federal statistics.)
Finally, we divided each metro area's average debt per household by May 2009 median household income, determined by Moody's Economy.com, an independent provider of economic analysis and data. This last calculation gave the average percentage of household income owed to credit card companies in each area.
While most places on the list aren't too surprising--Las Vegas' housing crash and dismal tourism numbers, down by 8% in the second quarter of 2008, mean residents still spending are digging deeper holes; and Riverside, Calif.'s dreary unemployment and foreclosure rates keep the debt-to-income ratio high--there are some more presumably stable spots that make the list.
Better Place, Same Debt
For example, Austin, Texas, reports a low cost of living, cost of housing and unemployment rate, but on average households owe 14.12% of their overall income to credit card companies.
Same goes for affordable spots like Indianapolis, Charlotte, N.C., and Cleveland, Ohio, where the percentage of indebted household income is 13.63%, 14.33% and 14.45%, respectively. While Austin is fortunate in that its unemployment rate is still fairly low (5.5%), the other places have high unemployment rates, which means despite the fact that the cost of living is moderate, residents are still having to charge more than they should.
For example, in Charlotte, the March 2009 unemployment rate was 11.4%, up from 5.2% in March 2008. (As the headquarters for Bank of America, the city was hit particularly hard by the financial collapse.) In both Cleveland and Indianapolis, the unemployment rate is 8.7%, which is 0.3% below the national average, but still 4.7% higher than what's considered economically healthy by economists.
Regardless of what is--or isn't--driving our spending, it comes down to this: Americans are still heavily indebted to creditors. While consumers have cut back, they're still spending more than they should.
However, Martin Lindstrom, a retail marketing expert and author of Buyology: Truth and Lies about What We Buy, argues that Americans will never again conspicuously consume like they have in the past.
"This recession has created a 'slap on the chin,' or 'wake-up call' so dramatic that I don't think people will forget this for years," he says. "These kinds of catastrophes alter your behavior for the rest of your life and often without your conscious influence."
Whether or not Lindstrom is right remains to be seen. But for now, many Americans are still overspending by a long shot.