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Business

Rate of overdue credit card bills drops

Average debt per account: $4,878

More positive signs about the economy have helped boost confidence among consumers, making them more willing to spend. Still, many remain careful about taking on debt.

Aaron M. Sprecher/Bloomberg News/File 2010

More positive signs about the economy have helped boost confidence among consumers, making them more willing to spend. Still, many remain careful about taking on debt.

LOS ANGELES — Americans got better about paying their credit card bills on time in the first three months of the year, a period when many borrowers use income tax returns to tackle holiday-season debt.

The rate of credit card payments at least 90 days overdue fell to 0.69 percent in the quarter from 0.85 percent a year earlier — a drop of nearly 19 percent, the credit reporting agency TransUnion said.

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The delinquency rate was also­ down from 0.73 in the October-December quarter, when many consumers ramped up credit card use to finance holiday purchases.

Neither a 2 percent hike in Social Security payroll taxes that took effect in January nor delayed federal income tax returns this year appeared to blunt borrowers’ ability to manage their debt.

The lowest late-payment rate on TransUnion records going back to the mid-1990s was 0.56 percent, set in the third quarter of 1994. More recently, it was at 0.60 percent in the second quarter of 2011.

All told, the delinquency rate has averaged 1.03 percent since 1992, said the firm, whose data are based on a sample of 27 million consumer records.

‘‘Even a moderate uptick in delinquency is not a cause for concern, because we are at historic lows,’’ said Ezra Becker, vice president in TransUnion’s financial services unit.

During the last recession, many Americans reined in spending in favor of paying off debt, particularly credit card balances. The housing downturn also prompted many homeowners to make paying credit card bills on time a priority ahead of other obligations, such as mortgage payments.

Nearly four years after the recession, the economy and job market are far from fully recovered but have made steady progress.

The US unemployment rate remains at an elevated 7.5 percent, but that’s down from 10 percent in October 2009. The economy has been adding jobs, home values are rising, and the stock market has been on a sustained upswing, with the Dow Jones industrial average up about 17 percent this year.

All that has helped boost confidence among consumers, making them more willing to spend. Still, many remain careful about debt.

Average credit card debt per borrower fell 1.7 percent to $4,878 in the first quarter from $4,962 in the same period last year, TransUnion said.

On a quarterly basis, it declined 4.8 percent from $5,122 in the fourth quarter.

TransUnion, however, has forecast that average credit card debt will rise by 8 percent to $5,446 by year’s end — the highest in four years.

Meanwhile, the number of new credit card accounts continued to decline as 2012 drew to a close, falling 1.6 percent from the same period in 2011.

The share of cards issued to borrowers with less-than-sterling credit slipped to 28.1 percent from 28.4 percent a year earlier. That was still above the 27.7 percent share in the fourth quarter of 2010, however.

In the VantageScore credit rating scale, consumers with a score lower than 700 on a scale of 501-990 are considered nonprime borrowers.

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