Credit card debt rises in some areas but is down overall

Credit card balances are falling across the nation as lenders tighten credit and consumers pare back debt. But in areas hit hard by housing problems or job losses, plastic is still a way of life.

In the Visalia, Calif., and Reno metro areas, total credit card balances climbed 4.6% and 2.4%, respectively, in the second quarter from a year ago, according to Equifax, a credit information provider. Phoenix and Miami residents are also adding to card debt. These areas are all seeing higher-than-average unemployment or declines in home values.

In distressed areas, consumers are "increasing their borrowing to make ends meet," says Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody's

The rise in card balances, while not dramatic, is significant amid a 3.3% overall decline in U.S. card debt in the second quarter.

Consumers are generally saving rather than spending, says Myra Hart, an Equifax senior vice president, especially in areas where they've lost a lot of wealth or have shaky job security.

As home prices decline, consumers are losing the ability to tap home equity. Some are turning to cards to fund expenses, says Stan Humphries, chief economist at, a real estate information site. Also, rising unemployment is having a "major impact" on debt loads, says Thomas Krolik, a Bureau of Labor Statistics economist. Still, the sharp pullback in credit could force even plastic-reliant consumers to trim spending in upcoming quarters.

For now, credit card balances are growing in roughly one of five metro areas in the country. Economic woes are one reason, but there are others.

•In the Provo, Utah, area, total credit card balances grew 6.8% in the second quarter. This region, home to Brigham Young University, tends to have more young families who are establishing credit, which could partly explain growing card balances, says Lars Lefgren, a BYU associate economics professor.

•Durham County, N.C., boasts the highest average wages in the state, so people may feel comfortable spending, says Ted Conner, a vice president at the Durham Chamber of Commerce. The region's card debt rose 6.8% in the second quarter.

•In the entrepreneurial Boulder, Colo., region, people may be using cards in part to finance their companies, says Jennifer Pinsonneault of the Boulder Economic Council.