America's Credit Card Debt Is More Than $1 Trillion -- Should We Be Worried?

By Matthew Frankel Markets Fool.com

According to data from the Federal Reserve, Americans' credit card debt rose by $3 billion in February 2017 to its highest level since 2008. We all know what happened in 2008, so should we be worried about a surge in delinquencies and defaults? And what can you do if your credit card debt has gotten a bit too high?

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The highest credit card debt level since 2008

Federal Reserve data shows that Americans owed just over $1 trillion on credit cards in February 2017, a level not seen since late 2008. Furthermore, credit card debt has roughly doubled in the United States over the past 20 years.

Image source: Getty Images.

In fact, credit card debt peaked in April 2008 at a level just 1.7% more than the current one, so it's fair to say that we could easily eclipse the all-time record in a manner of months if Americans continue to accumulate credit card debt.

Should we worry?

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Just because Americans' credit card debt is at levels not seen since the financial crisis began doesn't necessarily mean that there's reason to panic. That said, it's perfectly reasonable to expect a higher level of delinquencies if the rising debt trend continues.

According to Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com, "Credit card debt is rising quickly, but delinquencies are still really low. Many Americans are doing a good job of controlling their debts, but eventually with big debts and rising interest rates, it's likely that something will have to give. I expect delinquencies to start rising more quickly in 2017."

In other words, will higher credit card debt loads lead to an uptick in delinquency rates? Probably. Will they lead to a near financial collapse like we saw in 2008? Probably not. Consumers as a whole have a different mind-set now than they did in the pre-crisis era. And it's also worth noting that when adjusting for inflation, credit card debt levels in 2008 were still significantly higher than they are now.

However, according to Schulz, the rising debt might not be over just yet. "2017 will be a record-setting year for credit card debt. Americans' credit card debt will almost certainly reach its highest levels ever later this year and keep growing from there."

Also, keep in mind that most credit cards have variable interest rates, and rates are expected to rise over the next few years. "Add in a few expected rate increases from the Fed over the next two years, and that makes it even more important than usual to focus on paying down your credit card debt," said Schulz.

How to get your own credit card debt under control

If you have a piece of the trillion dollars in credit card debt, now is as good a time as any to get it under control, especially with interest rates projected to rise.

One smart way to pay down credit card debt is to take advantage of a 0% APR balance transfer offer. There are several good options, and one of my favorites is the Chase Slate. Admittedly, the card's 15-month 0% APR period on balance transfers is not the longest in the industry. However, the Slate has an introductory $0 balance transfer fee -- an extreme rarity in the credit card industry.

Another good option is the Citi Simplicity, which has an industry-leading 21-month 0% APR period for balance transfers. Sure, you'll pay a 3% balance transfer fee, but this could be worth the additional time -- after all, you'll likely pay far more than 3% interest over six months on an interest-charging credit card.

With a balance transfer card, 100% of the payments you send in will go toward reducing your balance, not putting interest income in your card issuer's pocket. America's credit card debt is rising, and if yours has risen as well, now is a smart time to get it under control.

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Matthew Frankel has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.