Consumer credit card debt taking a tumble

Consumer credit card debt taking a tumble The amount of credit card debt owed to lenders in the metropolitan areas that were hardest hit by high balances in the past has been falling significantly in the last year.

Of the 100 metropolitan areas nationwide that had the largest credit card debt as a percentage of annual income at the end of 2010, nearly 60 of them had seen double-digit drops in those balances at the end of 2011, according to new data from the credit monitoring bureau Equifax. Perhaps not surprisingly, the areas where those falls were most precipitous were in states that were among the most affected by the economic downturn to begin with, including California, Florida, Louisiana and Washington. Five metropolitan areas in Florida saw double-digit drops, the most of any single state.

"It is interesting that [areas] from some of the states hardest hit by the recession showed some of the biggest reductions in credit card debt," said Trey Loughran, president of Equifax's personal solutions business. "This suggests that consumers from these hardest hit areas have been especially cautious in their spending and diligent in paying down their credit card debt."

The metropolitan area that saw the most significant debt relief was Port St. Lucie, Florida, which saw the percentage of income owed to lenders drop 23.59 percent between the fourth quarters of 2010 and 2011, the report said. Ocala, Florida's reduction approached 21 percent, and those in both Bremerton-Silverdale, Washington, and Shreveport-Bossier City, Louisiana also topped 20 percent.

Equifax data shows that consumers' overall debt – including mortgages, credit card balances, auto loans, student loans and so forth – has fallen close to 11 percent from the all-time high observed in October 2008, but that some $800 billion of that figure is composed entirely of credit card debt, the report said. However, consumers' credit card balances have been steadily falling since the fourth quarter of 2010, when consumers still owed an average of about 17 percent of their income to lenders.

Consumers have been making concerted efforts to reduce debt since the recession, and have largely been successful because they have both reined in spending considerably and also increasing the value of their monthly contributions to their outstanding balances. However, in recent months, some statistics have shown credit card borrowing ticking back up slowly, though some experts say this is merely the result of seasonal increases seen during the holiday season every year.