Credit Cards: Use and Consumer Attitudes, 1970-2000

Article excerpt

A notable change in consumer financial services over the past few decades has been the growth of the use of credit cards, both for payments and as sources of revolving credit. From modest origins in the 1950s as a convenient way for the relatively well-to-do to settle restaurant and department store purchases without carrying cash, credit cards have become a ubiquitous financial product held by households in all economic strata.

In modern commerce, credit cards (along with debit cards) serve as a payment device in lieu of cash or checks for millions of routine purchases as well as for many transactions that would otherwise be inconvenient, or perhaps impossible (for example, making retail purchases by telephone or over the Internet). Credit cards have also become the primary source of unsecured open-end revolving credit, and they have largely replaced the installment-purchase plans that were important to the sales volume at many retail stores in earlier decades.

Along with most major societal changes come questions about whether the trend is beneficial or detrimental (or somewhere in between), and the rise of plastic cards for payments and open-end credit is no exception. Credit cards certainly are widely used and accepted by the public. But they have also raised concerns in two areas: (1) whether consumers fully understand the costs and implications of using credit cards (the consumer information-consumer understanding concern) and (2) whether credit cards have encouraged widespread overindebtedness, particularly among those least able to pay (the indebtedness-financial distress concern). The two issues are related, because one result of lack of understanding may be overindebtedness. Both issues remain prominent in public discourse, as debt and personal bankruptcy levels have increased over the decades and media reports of confused consumers have multiplied.

Although one can usually find anecdotes to illustrate a point--consumers who are unaware of the costs of credit cards, for instance, or consumers who overspend because of the wide availability of credit--such examples can never lead to a definitive understanding of issues having broad social or economic impact. Statistically representative surveys can contribute to a more complete understanding of consumers' experiences. Taken together, such surveys can serve as a status report on the use of credit cards some fifty years after their introduction. This article brings to the discussion some survey evidence on the use of credit cards in the United States. It begins with an examination of long-term trends in consumer indebtedness, with attention to the growth of card-based credit. It then moves to an exploration of the consumer information-consumer understanding issue, with emphasis on consumers' attitudes toward credit cards and their knowledge of costs.

CREDIT CARDS AND INDEBTEDNESS

The Federal Reserve Board collects data on amounts of consumer credit outstanding, including amounts of revolving consumer credit, most of which is generated by credit cards.(1) Total (nonmortgage) consumer credit outstanding increased from $119 billion at year-end 1968 to $1,456 billion in June 2000 (in current dollars, not seasonally adjusted), while the revolving component grew from $2 billion to about $626 billion over the same period. Because population, income, employment, prices, and nearly every other economic indicator also rose over the period, the growth of consumer credit is often put in perspective by comparing it with the growth of consumers' income.

Total (nonmortgage) consumer credit outstanding (revolving and nonrevolving forms combined) has grown at approximately the same pace as disposable personal income over the past generation, although with noticeably more cyclicality. Since the mid-1960s, total consumer credit outstanding relative to this measure of income has fluctuated in a relatively narrow range of about 16 percent to 17 percent during or following recession periods to about 18 percent to 21 percent near business-cycle high-points (chart 1). …