Poll: COVID-19 causes debt surge for some consumers

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The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live and spend. And a new survey found that, for some, that means carrying a bigger credit card balance.

A September 2021 online survey of 2,400 U.S. adults by Bankrate found 42 percent of consumers with credit card debt have added to the amount they owe since the pandemic began in March 2020.

This group was split on whether the pandemic was to blame for their financial issues. Out of the consumers who saw their debt increase:

  • Forty-seven percent said the pandemic caused them to get deeper in debt.
  • Fifty-three percent cited other reasons for their growing debt load.

Of all the generations represented in the survey, millennials were most likely to say that the virus was the reason their debt surged.

The survey highlights the fact that the big picture data of credit card debt falling during the pandemic leaves out an important part of the story, says Ted Rossman, senior industry analyst at Bankrate.

“Broadly, Americans have saved more and paid down debt over the past 18 months, but those improvements have not been distributed evenly,” Rossman says. “Sadly, a substantial percentage of Americans are faring much worse financially, and that sometimes gets lost in the macro trends.”

Who carries credit card debt and for how long?

More than half of U.S. adults (54 percent) carry a balance on a card or cards, the poll found, and it can take years for debtors to get their balances to zero.

Among those who carry a balance, here’s how long they have been in debt, according to the survey:

  • Less than or up to a year—38 percent
  • A year or longer—50 percent
  • Two years or longer—32 percent
  • Five years or longer—14 percent

Carrying credit card debt is common amongst U.S. cardholders of all income levels, but those in the middle income bracket are most likely to revolve a balance on their cards.

Here’s a breakdown of the percent of households that carry credit card debt, by income level, from the poll:

  • High income ($80,000 a year or more)—50 percent
  • Middle income ($40,000 to $79,999)—61 percent
  • Lower income (less than $40,000)—54 percent

Almost one quarter of high-income households with credit card debt (23 percent) have been carrying this financial load for five years or longer compared with 13 percent of middle income households and just 11 percent of lower income households.

Younger consumers more impacted by pandemic debt

Of all cardholders across all generations who already had credit card debt before the pandemic was declared in March 2020, the survey found 42 percent saw their debt grow during the pandemic. However, there were important generational differences.

Here’s the generational breakdown of the percentage of debtors who added to that debt since March 2020:

  • Millennials (ages 25 to 40)—52 percent
  • Gen Z (ages 18 to 24)—52 percent
  • Gen X (ages 41 to 56)—38 percent
  • Baby boomers (ages 57 to 75)—33 percent

Millennials and Gen Xers who added to their debt during the past 18 months were more likely than other generations to cite the pandemic as the main reason for their additional debt load.

Many older millennials (ages 32 to 40) were just starting out in their working lives when the Great Recession hit in 2008, points out Tonya Rapley, Chase Slate Edge financial expert and founder of My Fab Finance. “They’re a generation that has experienced two major financial events in their lifetime,” she says.

Why the pandemic hurt some financially

The pandemic caused many debt loads to grow. But why? Possible reasons include job loss, quitting a job or cutting back hours to manage kids’ virtual learning, having to pay for daycare or needing to buy equipment and technology for virtual school or work, says credit card expert John Ulzheimer. In fact, a previous Bankrate poll found that many parents reported virtual learning negatively affected finances in their family.

The pandemic also led to rising prices, fueled “panic buying” of items like toilet paper, peanut butter and bottled water that may have gone on credit cards and added new expenses to the budget, Ulzheimer points out. “No one had masks or a gallon of Purell as a line item on their household budget before last March,” he says.

Government help during the pandemic did contribute to an overall reduction in credit card debt, says Scott Hoyt, a senior director at Moody’s Analytics who handles consumer forecasts and analysis. However, some consumers clearly had to turn to credit cards to make ends meet during the pandemic.

Hoyt offers a few examples of consumers who may have found themselves in that situation: workers who lost income but didn’t qualify for unemployment, parents who had to balance childcare responsibilities with work and middle-income employees who lost their jobs but found their unemployment insurance checks fell short of their previous salaries.

“These folks may have suffered the most,” Hoyt says.

Credit card debt more taboo than masks and vaccines

Few topics are more emotionally (and politically) charged right now than coronavirus safety protocols. Are you a masker? Fully vaxxed? Adamantly opposed to one or both? These questions can make waves in families and cause rifts among friends.

But the survey found only a little over half of those with credit card debt feel comfortable talking about it with family and close friends. In fact, many more (83 percent) feel comfortable chatting about, say, vaccine passports, compared to discussing their credit card debt (53 percent).

Here are the percentages who said they feel comfortable talking about other personal or hot-button topics with family and close friends:

  • Religious views—79 percent
  • Health—78 percent
  • Political views—77 percent
  • Weight—65 percent

The only topic in the poll that generates more discomfort than dishing about credit card debt is baring your soul about dating and romance—but just barely. The survey found that just over half (51 percent) of people with credit card debt said they feel comfortable divulging details of their love life.

That’s understandable because some people with debt worry that others will make assumptions about them due to their credit card balance, Rapley says: “They don’t want people to assume they’re not responsible.”

Looking to a debt-free future

Every cardholder who’s ever watched interest charges grow has thought ahead to a day without debt. With the pandemic still raging, the future is uncertain for many.

The survey found that less than one in three (30 percent) credit card debtors expect to get out of debt within one year. Twice as many (60 percent) expect to be free from their debt within five years, while 28 percent expect it to take longer than five years.

A small but significant percentage of cardholders see a grim outlook: More than one in 10 (12 percent) don’t know when they will be able to get to a zero balance while one in 20 (5 percent) believe they will die in debt.

Drowning in pandemic debt? There’s help.

Did you add to your credit card debt during the pandemic? “Credit card debt can be particularly harmful and persistent because the average interest rate is north of 16 percent,” Rossman points out. Fortunately, you do have options.

Here are five steps you can take if you’re overwhelmed by the credit card debt you accrued during the pandemic:

  1. Consider credit counseling. If you’re struggling with credit card debt, you can contact a nonprofit credit counseling agency such as Money Management International or GreenPath, Rossman recommends.
  2. Get a balance transfer card. If you’ve accrued debt on a high-interest credit card, a zero-percent APR balance transfer card may be the way to go. “That can save you a lot of money and help you pay down debt even faster,” says Rapley.
  3. Talk to your lender. A barista from Philadelphia, Jamie Hickey, who accrued $7,000 in debt during the pandemic due to job loss, says he talked to Discover and got his interest rate reduced, which is helping him to pay down his debt. “I would call the credit card company to see if they can help,” he says. Lowering your credit card interest rate may be as simple as asking.
  4. Look for ways to boost income. Seek out a side gig, take on a second job or look for a new (higher-paying) one. Beth McCarter, a former teacher in Sherman, Texas, who racked up pandemic debt says she picked up seasonal work at UPS to help make ends meet. Many employers are increasing wages and offering hiring bonuses. “Now is the time to explore your options,” Rapley says.
  5. Learn the ins and outs of credit. “Learn how credit works and get as much credit education as you can,” Rapley advises. It’s good to have a credit card that offers free access to your credit score so you can check yours regularly and see which factors affect your credit.

Finally, why not enter the new Bankrate Drop Your Debt Sweepstakes? Five winners will get $10,000 each to put toward their debt. And you can get up to three chances to win: one when you create a Bankrate account, a second when you link a financial account and a third when you take a money quiz. (No purchase necessary, ends Oct. 16, 2021. See official rules.)

While you can’t count on a prize money windfall (or anything else) to save the day for you financially, it definitely can’t hurt to take a shot. Who knows? You may get lucky and win a pile of cash to eliminate—or at least put a dent in—your debt.

Written by
Allie Johnson
Personal Finance Writer
Allie has written about personal finance and covered credit cards extensively for more than 10 years. Allie covers avoiding credit card debt, choosing credit cards wisely and earning and maximizing credit card rewards.
Edited by
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