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Sobered by the crisis, Americans keep their credit cards in check

An American Bankers Association report says the share of cardholders who pay off balances in full climbed from 28.6 percent to 29 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013, the highest share on record.

Elise Amendola/Associated Press/File

An American Bankers Association report says the share of cardholders who pay off balances in full climbed from 28.6 percent to 29 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013, the highest share on record.

WASHINGTON — It seems Americans walked away from the recession with a key lesson about credit cards: If you’re going to use them, pay them off as quickly as you can.

An American Bankers Association report says the share of cardholders who pay off balances in full climbed from 28.6 percent to 29 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013, the highest share on record. It’s not monumental growth, but when coupled with data on the decline in credit card delinquencies, it shows Americans have become more responsible.

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Delinquencies for bank credit cards, coming in at 2.44 percent in the first quarter, were well below the 15-year average of 3.82 percent. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported that just 8.5 percent of credit card debt was seriously delinquent — at least 90 days past due — in the first three months of the year, the lowest since 2003.

In the run-up to the 2008 recession, Americans gorged on plastic. Credit card debt soared 87 percent in the decade preceding the crisis as real wages and the savings rate flat-lined, according to the Fed. People were spending beyond their means and fell behind on payments once the economy collapsed and unemployment climbed.

Americans spent the next several years paying down their credit cards, while banks pulled back on lines of credit, all of which drove debt levels down. Now, the reduction in credit availability is leveling off, with credit lines contracting at their slowest rate in a year. At the same time, the Fed said, revolving debt, which includes credit card balances, is growing, up $1.7 billion in May.

‘‘Consumers have a greater capacity to meet their financial obligations due to an improving economy, low interest rates, and the significant deleveraging they’ve done in recent years,’’ said the banking group’s chief economist, James Chessen.

In addition, the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act, signed into law five years ago, cut the volume of fees credit card companies could charge. No more multiple fees in a single billing period for being late on a payment or fees for not using the card. Before the law, credit card companies could hike up interest rates or change the payment due date without warning, saddling cardholders with more debt.

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