Changes in usageIn the context of these hard recessionary times, how will Americans change their credit card habits in the future?
Bankrate's survey says 50 percent of Americans with credit cards do not plan to change their habits, but 32 percent say they will probably charge less, and 15 percent plan to abstain from credit cards entirely in 2009.
"I would have thought that the number of people saying they would charge less would be higher," says Peterson.
"But only about 40 percent of credit card accounts are revolved," he says, referring to people with outstanding balances each month. "The people that will probably charge less are those who do carry a balance," he says.
Why we chargeWhy do we use credit cards? The answer depends somewhat on age group. Not surprisingly, 28 percent of consumers between 18 and 24 use credit cards to get by when they run out of cash.
Across all age and income categories, 40 percent of Americans use credit cards because they're convenient. A small number use cards to rack up rewards, points and cash -- only 10 percent, which, according to Hardekopf, could change if consumers pay their bill in full every month.
"Credit cards are a wonderful financial tool. You can have the credit cards work for you, you can get cash back or get money for any passion or hobby you have: NFL, college team," he says.
Despite the usefulness of cards, Americans aren't enamored with plastic. It's like a marriage of convenience -- a relationship not based on trust. On the one hand, we use credit cards because they are expedient, yet we also feel that maybe they're too easy.
"It could be that Americans are concerned that credit is too widely available -- for other people," says Detweiler.
This national random-digit-dialed phone study of 1,004 adults 18 or older was conducted for Bankrate by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media. The surveys were conducted from Dec. 5 through Dec. 7, 2008. The sample was weighted by demographic factors including age, gender, race, education and census region to ensure reliable and accurate representation of adults in U.S. households. The margin of error for the survey is +/- 3 percentage points for the full sample. For full results and methodology, download this PDF.