Credit monitoring firm Equifax recently reported that the issuance of consumer credit has risen to a six-year high. This could be a sign that the economy is finally getting back to normal, but it also could be a cautionary signal.
According to Equifax, the number of new credit cards issued is up 18.5 percent year-over-year, and the number of new auto loans originated is up 11.9 percent. An optimist might refer to this as the rebuilding of consumer credit, but that rebuilding is happening on a shaky foundation. Some people are taking on more debt without having paid down what they already owed, which could be a recipe for disaster.
Remembering the lean years
You can’t do anything about debt conditions in this country generally, but as the economic mood turns from pessimism to optimism, there are some personal finance lessons you should remember from the hard times of the past several years:
- Don’t get carried away with optimism. If you are feeling better about the economy and think you can afford to spend more, that’s great — as long as you are earning what you spend, not borrowing it. Ask yourself this: If you have to rely on borrowing to spend more, can you really afford it?
- You need to keep feeding your retirement account. Some great investment returns over the past few years have restored many retirement balances to health. Still, don’t take that as a cue to cut back on your contributions and let the markets do all the work. There may be some lean investment years somewhere along the way, and the best way to mitigate market setbacks is to keep steady additions going into your account.
- An emergency fund can come in handy. Besides saving for retirement, what many people learned from the aftermath of the Great Recession is that an emergency fund can be a necessity during hard times. Of course, when times get tough you don’t have the opportunity to build up this kind of reserve, so you have to remember to do it when things are going well.
- Checking account fees can bleed you dry. The financial crisis changed the fee environment for checking accounts, and even as conditions improve that environment has not been changing back. Free checking is harder to find, and overdraft fees have risen. By shopping around you can still find free checking accounts, and by opting out of overdraft protection you can develop better banking habits that will save you from those fees.
- Savings accounts may be dull, but they are not all the same. Somewhere around the time when savings account interest rates dropped below 1 percent, most people completely lost interest in them. However, those rates still vary greatly from bank to bank, so shopping around is as important as ever.
- Good jobs are hard to find. Employees may find themselves a little more in demand now, but they should never forget what it is like to be looking for a job in a soft economy. Keep your skills up to date, and never lose sight of how you can add value to your employer.
Optimism is great — it is necessary for a dynamic economy. However, after all people have been through since 2008, it would be better if that optimism were informed by some hard-earned wisdom.
Richard Barrington has earned the CFA designation and is a 20-year veteran of the financial industry.