While credit cards are an important financial tool for the majority of Americans, the average consumer is choosing to own fewer of them.
To be sure, they're still found in most Americans' wallets. In September 2014, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston published data from its 2011 and 2012 Surveys of Consumer Payment Choice and found that in 2012, 72.1 percent of consumers had at least one credit card. 1
More recent data suggests credit card ownership is dropping off among the young.
A Gallup survey conducted in April 2014 found that the average number of credit cards Americans say they carry is at an all-time low. According to the Gallup survey, the average number of cards owned by all Americans -- including those with no credit cards -- is 2.6. Among Americans with credit cards, the average number of cards owned is 3.7. The percentage of Americans who have no credit cards rose to 29 percent in 2014, up from 22 percent in 2008. 2
Among the other 2014 findings:
- 33 percent had one to two cards.
- 18 percent had three to four cards.
- 9 percent had five to six cards.
- 7 percent had seven or more cards. 2
While some people have chosen not to use credit cards, others have been turned down by credit card issuers. According to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, 7 percent of Americans were rejected for a new credit card in 2014, up from 4 percent in 2011. 3
Demographic breakdown of credit card ownership
Some groups are more likely to own credit cards than others. In Experian's State of Credit 2013 report, the credit scoring company found that consumers had on average 2.19 bank credit cards (which do not include store cards) in 2013. Baby boomers (age 47-65) tended to have the most bank cards, with 2.66 cards on average. Generation X (age 30-46) was next with 2.13 cards. Americans over the age of 66 were next, having on average 1.90 cards, and millennials (age 19-29) had the fewest number of bank credit cards, on average, with 1.57 cards. 4
Americans are waiting longer to get their first credit card these days. The recession made issuers stingier about granting cards to anyone, but younger consumers also have student debt to contend with and a 2009 law restricting their access to cards. The Credit CARD Act of 2009 bans credit card approvals for anyone under 21 years old unless they have an adult co-signer or can prove they have sufficient income to pay the bills.
According to Sallie Mae's 2013 "How America Pays for College" report, 30 percent of undergraduate students owned a credit card in 2013, compared to 35 percent in 2012 and 42 percent in 2010. The older the student, the more likely they were to have a credit card. Forty-seven percent of college seniors had plastic in 2013, down from 60 percent in 2012. Twenty-seven percent of sophomores had a credit card in 2013, down from 28 percent in 2012. Only 14 percent of freshmen had a card in 2013, down from 21 percent in 2012. Among juniors, however, card ownership increased, with 46 percent of juniors owning a credit card in 2013 compared to 38 percent in 2012. 5
Other findings concering college students and credit card ownership:
- 33 percent of white college students had credit cards, compared to 24 percent of African-American college students and 22 percent of Hispanic students.
- 34 percent of students from high-income families had credit cards in 2013 compared to 32 percent of students from low-income families and 28 percent of students from middle income families.
- While 27 percent of college students carried both a credit card and a debit card in 2013, 20 percent of college students carried neither. That breaks down to 31 percent of freshmen, 22 percent of sophomores, 8 percent of juniors and 9 percent of seniors who had neither a credit card nor a debit card. 5
The western United States has the most college-age credit card holders, with 37 percent of students who live in the West and 30 percent of students who live in the Midwest owning credit cards compared to 27 percent of college students in the South and 26 percent of college students in the Northeast. 5
Types of credit cards Americans own
Americans tend to hold a variety of cards. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, the average credit card holder in 2012 had four: 2.4 general purpose cards, 0.2 charge cards and 1.5 branded cards (cards displaying a merchant's logo). Of the four credit cards held by the average credit card user in 2012, 2.3 earned rewards and 1.7 did not. 1
Source: Federal Reserve Bank of Boston
- The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston's 2011 and 2012 Surveys of Consumer Payment Choice, released Sept. 29, 2014
- Gallup, April 25, 2014 survey
- The 2014 Consumer Financial Literacy Survey, prepared for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling
- Experian's State of Credit 2013 report
- How America Pays for College, 2013 report by Sallie Mae
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