WASHINGTON — Charge it! That familiar refrain is producing an unwanted response for more Americans: Your bill is overdue!
Surging energy prices, low personal savings and the higher cost of borrowing have combined to produce a record level of overdue credit card bills.
The American Bankers Association reported Wednesday that the percentage of credit card accounts 30 or more days past due climbed to an all-time high of 4.81 percent in the April-to-June period. It could grow in the months ahead, experts said.
The previous high of 4.76 percent came during the first three months of the year, in keeping with a generally steady rise over the past several years.
"The last two quarters have not been pretty," said Jim Chessen, the association's chief economist.
Chessen and other analysts mostly blamed high prices for gasoline and other energy products, but said that low savings and higher borrowing costs also played a role.
"The rise in gas prices is really stretching budgets to the breaking point for some people," Chessen said. "Gas prices are taking huge chunks out of wallets, leaving some individuals with little left to meet their financial obligations."
Pump prices were high before hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast. After Katrina, prices jumped past $3 a gallon. Prices have moderated since but remain high.
The personal savings rate dipped to a record low of negative 0.6 percent in July. The negative percentage means that people did not have enough left over after paying their taxes to cover all of their spending in July. As a result, they dipped into savings to cover the shortfall.
When people have less money available to pay for energy costs or emergencies such as a big car repair, many resort to credit. That option is getting more expensive, too.
The Federal Reserve has been tightening credit since June 2004. That has caused commercial banks' prime lending rate to rise to 6.75 percent, the highest in four years. These rates are used for many short-term consumer loans, including credit cards and popular home equity lines of credit.
Late payments may be bad news for consumers, but credit card companies do not necessarily mind them, because late fees are a source of revenue.
"Credit card companies are increasingly addicted to their fees," said Daniel Ray, editor-in-chief at Bankrate.com, an online financial service. "Six years ago, all fees — including late fees — contributed only a minor portion to overall revenue. Today it accounts for more than 30 percent."
About half of all credit problems stem from poor money management. Credit problems due to the loss of a job, sickness or divorce play less of a role, said personal finance expert Susan Tiffany, director of consumer publishing at the Credit Union National Association.
"That tells us people have some ability to do a better job. They are not completely helpless in the situation, and that's good," said Tiffany, whose trade group also is involved in efforts to improve people's financial literacy.
Getting back on the road to financial health takes discipline and hard choices about what can be cut back or eliminated. If credit card problems are plaguing a family, all the members should work together to come up with a plan and pare down spending.
From an economic perspective, the current rise in delinquent credit card payments is not overly worrisome. But if the trend were to continue for a sustained period, it could spell trouble for the overall economy, said Lynn Reaser, chief economist at Bank of America's Investment Strategies Group.
"It's a flashing yellow light that we need to watch," she said.