People walk by a window sticker advertising Visa and MasterCard credit cards February 25, 2008 in San Francisco, Calif.
People walk by a window sticker advertising Visa and MasterCard credit cards February 25, 2008 in San Francisco, Calif. - 
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Kai Ryssdal: Let's go from national debt to personal debt. There was a report out from this morning -- that's a website that compares credit cards -- that had some interesting news.

Just 3.5 percent of us are a month or more behind on our credit card payments. That's the lowest level since 1994. And it poses an interesting question: As banks crank up fees to make up for lost revenue and consumers cut back on debt overall, have we permanently changed our credit-seeking ways?

Marketplace's Mitchell Hartman reports.

Mitchell Hartman: When the recession hit, the frugalista bug bit. We started paying down our credit card balances and avoided racking up new ones. And fewer people are now behind on their credit card bills.

Bill Hardekopf of says that's partly because banks got burned by all the loose lending before the recession. Now, they've tightened up their credit standards: Only people who already have good credit can even get a card from a bank.

Bill Hardekopf: They have decreased their financial risk, so it is very difficult to get a credit card today if you have average or very poor credit scores.

And the credit card users left more often pay on time. Plus, says Bart Narter of bank research firm Celent, most consumers are in no mood to risk racking up debt again or the interest that comes with it.

Bart Narter: People are moving away from debt and setting aside money for a rainy day because they see the rainy days both in the past and perhaps in the future.

Question is, is this a permanent shift in American consumer behavior -- a 'new frugalista normal'?

Maryland resident Amanda Graham says it is for her. She's 46, uses only a debit card and kissed credit cards goodbye.

Amanda Graham: Debt is not for us. We like living within our means, and we like seeing that we have savings to deal with emergencies. Now do I imagine that as soon as things ease up and they feel safe, people are going to start using credit again? Absolutely.

If the banks even give it to them.

I'm Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.

Follow Mitchell Hartman at @entrepreneurguy