Rateworks auto loan refinance
September 19, 2023

Credit Card and Car Loan Defaults Hit 10-Year High

Learn about the surge in credit card and car loan defaults. Understand the financial consequences of this 10-year high trend.

Graphic representing a car loan defaulting
Written by

Jennifer Moore

Recent trends have raised concerns about the economic health of consumers across the nation. New vehicle prices, as reported by the May 2023 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) consumer price index, have surged by 4.7% year over year

Conversely, the prices of used cars and trucks have declined by 4.2%. According to Experian, these shifts in the automotive market are significant, as Americans are borrowing substantial sums for their vehicle purchases, with an average of $40,851 for new vehicles and $26,420 for used vehicles.

However, it's not just the auto industry that's making headlines. The most recent data from the Federal Reserve has revealed that credit card debt had reached a staggering $1.03 trillion in Q2 2023. Furthermore, estimates show that the average credit card balance in Q1 2023 stood at $5,733.

This article will explore the increase in credit card and car loan defaults, the factors contributing to this trend, its consequences, and strategies to navigate these financial challenges. 

What you need to know about credit card and car loan defaults 

In the past several months, credit card and car loan defaults have surged to alarming levels. According to the most recent data from the Federal Reserve, the 30-day delinquency rate for credit cards has climbed from 2.43% in the first quarter of 2023 to 2.77% in the second quarter. This uptick is significant, signaling that more Americans struggle to meet their credit card payment obligations. 

Even the nation's largest banks have reported the highest loan loss rates since the pandemic, projecting a collective $5 billion in defaulted loans for Q2 2023. Chase, for instance, saw card charge-offs soar to $1.1 billion, compared to $600 million during the same period the previous year.

The surge in auto loan defaults compounds the worries for American consumers, already grappling with mortgage rates exceeding 7% and an unsettling surge in unsecured personal debt, reaching $225 billion in 2023 according to TransUnion.

Understanding loan defaults 

A loan default occurs when an individual, business, or entity fails to make the required interest or principal repayments on a debt, be it a loan or a security. The implications of loan defaults reverberate throughout the financial landscape, affecting creditors, borrowers, and the overall economy.

Recent data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York paints a concerning picture: a record 7 million Americans are now at least three months behind on their car loan payments. This figure exceeds the number seen at the end of the last recession in 2009 by about a million individuals. 

So, why do people find themselves in the precarious position of loan default? Several factors contribute, including:

  • Rising interest rates: As interest rates increase, the cost of borrowing escalates, potentially rendering loan payments unmanageable for some borrowers.
  • Inflation: Erosion of purchasing power can strain finances, making it harder to meet debt obligations.
  • Unemployment: Job loss or reduced income can disrupt the financial stability needed to service loans.
A paper showing an approved car loan

High impact on borrowers 

According to Experian, defaulting on a loan or credit card sets in motion a cascade of negative effects that can impact your financial well-being.

Firstly, a default marks your credit reports negatively, which can significantly hurt your credit scores for seven years. The extent of damage varies, as defaults often accompany other detrimental credit events. At a minimum, you'll see entries marked as 30 and 60 days late, diminishing your credit scores.

When it comes to an automobile loan or other loan secured by property (like boats, RVs, cellphones, or furniture), defaulting typically initiates the repossession process. In such cases, the lender has the right to reclaim the collateral to settle your debt, which may lead to additional outstanding debt assigned to a collections agency.

Repossessions and collection accounts are enduring blemishes on your credit reports, sticking around for seven years while continuing to affect your credit scores adversely.

Trends and statistics 

The new credit card delinquency rate has surged beyond its pre-COVID levels, reaching 7.2% in the second quarter of 2023. Similarly, auto loan delinquencies stood at 7.3% in Q2, surpassing pre-pandemic levels.

It's worth noting that mortgage delinquencies remain notably low compared to these rising loan default rates.

Even as inflation rates subside, Americans increasingly turn to credit cards to manage their finances, often to maintain their "levels of consumption," as Moody's Investors Service notes. However, higher interest rates on credit cards can exacerbate the situation, pushing balances higher and making it even more challenging for individuals to meet their financial obligations.

Economic consequences 

In August, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York's Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit revealed an uptick in total household debt, rising by $16 billion to $17.06 trillion in the second quarter of 2023. Credit card balances surged to a series high of $1.03 trillion, indicating a 4.6% quarterly increase. These trends highlight significance of the current economic landscape, emphasizing the need for prudent financial management to mitigate the potential consequences of rising loan defaults.

The repercussions of rising loan defaults extend beyond individual financial struggles, potentially impacting the broader economy. Defaulting on loans can cast a shadow over the financial stability of individuals and have far-reaching implications for the country as a whole.

One critical consequence is the effect on interest rates. Defaults raise the interest rates on federal debt, exacerbating the nation's fiscal position. Additionally, they elevate the cost of capital across the economy by setting a higher floor for all interest rates, including those paid by households. This can make borrowing more expensive for both individuals and businesses, inhibiting economic growth.

A default scenario carries several serious and adverse economic effects. It could trigger stock price reductions, diminishing many taxpayers' wealth. Reduced economic confidence may lead to decreased consumer spending, further hampering economic recovery. Moreover, a default would increase interest rates, saddling taxpayers with substantial interest payments.

Debt management strategies 

Managing credit card debt and car loans effectively requires a strategic approach and a commitment to financial discipline. Here are some practical strategies to help you regain control of your finances:

  • Create a family budget: If you haven't already, establish a family budget. Consider using the 50/20/30 plan, allocating 50% of your income to needs (including credit card and auto loan payments), 20% to savings, and 30% to wants. Reevaluate your spending in each category to identify areas to cut back.
  • Sell things you no longer use: Declutter your home annually and sell items in good condition that you no longer need. Consider hosting a garage sale or utilizing platforms like Facebook Marketplace to turn your unused belongings into extra cash.
  • Negotiate lower credit card interest rates: Contact your credit card issuer, particularly the one you've held the longest. Highlight your on-time payment history, strong credit score, and any financial difficulties you've faced. While not guaranteed, these factors can improve your chances of negotiating a lower interest rate.
  • Snowball or avalanche method: When tackling credit card debt, consider a debt repayment strategy that best matches your financial situation. The snowball method involves paying off the smallest debts first, providing a psychological boost as you see progress. The avalanche method prioritizes high-interest debts, saving you additional money in the process. Select the approach that aligns with your goals and discipline.
  • Reduce monthly bills: Take a closer look at your monthly expenses. Consider cutting down on unnecessary services like unused streaming subscriptions. Explore opportunities for additional income through a side hustle or part-time work to supplement your budget.
  • Seek professional help: If you're overwhelmed by debt, consider working with a credit counselor. These professionals can guide you and help you develop a customized debt repayment plan. They may help you negotiate with creditors to secure lower interest rates or more favorable repayment terms.
  • Prioritize financial education: Take the time to educate yourself about personal finance. Understand the principles of responsible borrowing, budgeting, and saving. The more informed you are, the better equipped you'll be to make sound financial decisions.
  • Emergency fund: Build an emergency fund to cover unexpected expenses and avoid using credit cards for emergencies. Having this safety net can prevent further accumulation of debt. Remember, your savings should represent 20% of your overall budget.
  • Consider a side hustle: Join the growing trend of side hustles; 39% of U.S. adults already do it. A side gig can add hundreds of dollars to your monthly income—on average, people with side hustles make $810 extra each month. Explore opportunities to boost your earnings beyond your primary job.

Loan default prevention

Here are some strategies and tips to help you avoid loan defaults:

  • Plan before taking out a loan: Evaluate whether you genuinely need a loan and how it fits into your financial plan.
  • Understand loan requirements: Ensure you comprehend all the loan terms and requirements before committing. Make sure it aligns with your budget.
  • Compare offers: Don't settle for the first loan offer you receive. Compare interest rates, fees, downpayment terms, and eligibility criteria from multiple lenders to secure the best deal.
  • Read the fine print: Always thoroughly understand the loan agreement before signing it. Seek clarification on any unclear terms or conditions.
  • Budget wisely: We’ve discussed this before because budget management is critical in helping you avoid loan defaults. Create a budget for your loan repayments, daily expenses, and savings. Stick to this budget diligently.
  • Build an emergency fund: This is another one we can’t stress to you enough. Establish an emergency fund to cover unexpected expenses. This fund can prevent you from relying on credit cards or loans during emergencies.
  • Responsible borrowing: Borrow only what you can afford to repay. Avoid excessive debt, even if you qualify for a larger loan.
  • Manage your credit score: A good credit score can open doors to better loan terms. Pay bills on time, maintain a low credit utilization rate, and monitor your credit report regularly to spot and rectify any errors.
Cartoon of two people agreeing on loan agreement

Following these steps can significantly reduce the risk of loan defaults and maintain financial stability.

Government policies and assistance

Government and relief programs offer grants, money that doesn't need to be repaid, to assist individuals facing financial difficulties. Although there aren't government grants specifically for debt relief, these grants can indirectly help by covering essential expenses, allowing you to allocate more of your income towards paying off debt.

One of the most substantial government grants available is housing vouchers, which are particularly beneficial for those who qualify. Local housing authorities provide these vouchers and directly cover your rent payments.

Several government programs offer both long-term and temporary financial assistance for various expenses, including:

  • Low income home energy assistance program (LIHEAP): Helps low-income families with energy-related costs.
  • Temporary assistance for needy families (TANF): Provides temporary financial aid to families in need.
  • Special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children (WIC): Offers nutritional support to eligible individuals.
  • Student loan assistance: Some programs help manage or reduce student loan debt.

To find these programs and explore your eligibility, consider reliable online resources like Need Help Paying Bills, Benefits.gov, USA.gov, and Seniors Resource Guide. Be cautious of offers that require payment for lists of government grant programs, as these are often fraudulent. While there isn't a specific government program for credit card debt relief, legitimate debt settlement and relief programs adhere to strict regulations.

Additionally, some states offer general assistance programs administered by municipal governments to provide emergency financial support to those in need. Be sure to check if your state has such a program.

Refinance your auto loan with RateWorks: Avoid becoming part of the car loan default trends

As credit card and car loan defaults continue to rise, prioritize proactive financial management and responsible borrowing. The consequences of increasing loan default rates can significantly impact your financial stability and the broader economy.

To safeguard your financial health and prevent loan defaults, such as budgeting effectively, maintaining an emergency fund, and managing your credit score. Explore government assistance programs and debt relief options if you're struggling with loan payments.

Additionally, consider refinancing your vehicle's loan terms with RateWorks to lower your monthly payments, freeing up funds for other essential expenses and potentially saving hundreds. By making informed financial decisions and staying vigilant, you can navigate these challenging times and work towards a more secure financial future.