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Credit card balances utilization rates

The fourth quarter is the season for charging

The fourth quarter of the year, which includes the Christmas shopping season, is the busiest for retailers. Hark! As expected, it’s also the time of the year when credit card holders make the most intensive use of their access to credit.

The FRED graph above tracks credit card use from a dataset provided by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. The utilization rate shown in the graph is the percent of the total available credit line that a borrower is using at the end of a billing cycle. The data are available since the third quarter of 2012 and aren’t seasonally adjusted. The telltale see-saw pattern in the plotted data reveals the timing of the most-intensive use of credit cards: the fourth quarter of the year.

This seasonal pattern exists across the three different groups of credit card holders reported in the data release:

  • Green: This typical group, in the 50th percentile, uses an average of about 9% of their available credit limit.
  • Red: This more-intensive group, in the top 25th percentile, uses an average of 56% of their available credit limit.
  • Blue: This most-intensive group, in the top 10th percentile, nearly max out their available credit limit, at an average of 93%.

One more thing: There was a marked decline in credit card utilization rates during the COVID-19 pandemic. A closer look at the data in FRED shows credit card holders aren’t yet racking up their credit card debt with the same intensity as they did prior to 2020. The spike in personal saving during the pandemic described in this FRED Blog post could explain this decreased reliance on charging.

How this graph was created: Search FRED for “Large Bank Consumer Credit Card Balances: Utilization: Active Accounts Only: 50th Percentile.” Click the “Edit Graph” button and use the “Add Line” tab to add the other two series.

Suggested by Diego Mendez-Carbajo.

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