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Unemployed stay afloat on credit

Visa credit cards. Photo Illustration by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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[This story originally aired on Marketplace, June 25, 2009]


Tess Vigeland: While the smell of burning bacon may seem like a good idea for that special man in your life, I doubt that most people will be slapping down their plastic to pay for it.

Besides the ewww factor, seems that we may be getting a bit better at handling our credit.

This week TransUnion reported that credit card delinquencies fell in the third quarter. Of course — from the desk of lies, damn lies and statistics — on the very same day Moody’s reported that delinquencies rose in October.

Managing credit is and always will be a daily battle, especially if you’re unemployed.

Marketplace’s Stacey Vanek-Smith has that story.

STACEY VANEK-SMITH: Not only are more people unemployed. More people are staying unemployed. The number of people running out of unemployment benefits is at its highest level in decades.

And that’s going to deal another blow to the economy: mounting credit-card defaults.

David Robertson is the publisher of the Nilson Report, an industry newsletter.

DAVID ROBERTSON: When that paycheck goes away, decisions have to be made. Mortgages, car loans, etc. And the credit-card bill is mostly the one that goes by first.

Credit-card defaults have hit record highs. This year the industry is expected to lose around $80 billion. Still, economist Greg McBride says credit-card debt will not be the new mortgage debt.

GREG MCBRIDE: The numbers are much, much smaller and the implication of defaults on the broader economy isn’t something that really even belongs in the same conversation as what we’ve seen in the mortgage side.

We owe about a trillion dollars on our cards. Compare that to the roughly $11 trillion we owe on our mortgages. But those numbers don’t tell the whole story says Robert Manning, founder of the Responsible Debt Relief Program. He says these days people are using their cards for rent and food. So when they start missing card payments, it’s a sign they’re slipping over the edge.

ROBERT MANNING: While the outstanding amount of credit-card debt sounds very small compared to mortgage debt, it’s going to expose all these other trillions of dollars in consumer debt that people may have to default on.

Manning expects a flood of personal bankruptcies this year. And, he says, that could have devastating effects throughout the economy.

I’m Stacey Vanek-Smith for Marketplace.

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