The answer increasingly has become the credit card. According to statistics from credit bureau TransUnion, the number of consumers who default on their mortgages but continue to pay their credit cards on time has remained well above normal even as the country has moved into an economic recovery. The steady climb — up from 37 percent before the recession to more than half at the end of last year — has some financial experts questioning whether the shift reflects a permanent change in how families manage their personal balance sheets.
“If you get into the mind-set of a person experiencing financial distress, this is a perfectly rational and logical response,” said Mark Cole, executive vice president of CredAbility, a nonprofit education and credit counseling firm. “They didn’t have enough in savings, and credit cards became the shock absorber.”
Under the new payment hierarchy, their homes have become a liability and the consequences of skipping a mortgage payment seem far away, especially as legal wrangling over foreclosure can stretch for months. A credit card, on the other hand, can help them satisfy the immediate demands of paying for food or keeping the lights on. In addition, lax lending standards allowed many to buy a home with little financial investment — now manifesting itself as a lack of emotional attachment as well.
Jeff Horton of Orlando stopped paying the mortgage on his home 19 months ago, and said he still hasn’t heard from his lender, Bank of America. He bought the home in 2007 for $265,000 only to find out that the value plunged to less than half that a year later. A condo he purchased in late 2005 for $140,000 is now worth $34,000, he said. Horton said he can’t even rent the properties at a price that would cover his mortgages.
“It’s absurd,” he said. “I’m completely bound to these properties. I can’t get rid of them.”
Horton said that his condo has gone through foreclosure, and that he knows it will take years to repair his credit. But he figures it could take even longer for the value of his home to recover.
As for his credit card, student loans and car note? “I pay all that stuff. I’m not behind on anything else. Never have been,” Horton said.
Financial advisers caution that the mortgage is still the most important debt to pay on time, and many Americans agree. A survey by the National Foundation of Credit Counselors last year showed that 91 percent of consumers said they would pay their mortgage before their credit card bill. Losing a home can result in financial and emotional upheaval that lasts long after the debt collectors stop calling.
“A credit card bill should not be paid until after all those other things can be paid,” said Johanna Anderson, a program administrator at the Housing Initiative Partnership. “People in trouble need to think of credit card companies as the little yapping dogs. They’ll be calling all the time and sending letters constantly, but their bite is not that bad.”
That’s the advice Anderson gave to Troy and Alicia Graham of Landover when the couple fell behind on their mortgage in late 2008 after maxing out their credit cards.
Troy Graham, a youth counselor at the time, suffered a knee injury on the job and his income was dramatically scaled back as he recovered. His medical bills kept piling up, and the couple’s adjustable-rate mortgage was about to reset to a higher rate.
Unsure how to tackle their mounting debt, they turned to Anderson, who helped them apply for a loan modification that ultimately saved them from foreclosure in early 2009. They haven’t missed a mortgage payment since.
“We figured it was more important for us to have a roof over our heads than anything else,” Alicia Graham said. “The rest, we just had to wing it. We cut back on everything. It becomes more about what you need and not what you want.”
Still, Jon Maddux, chief executive of YouWalkAway.com, said that not paying the mortgage often frees up cash for families to pay off other creditors. The company has counseled about 6,000 people on how to default on their home loans, many of whom have cleaned out savings and retirement plans to make their monthly mortgage payments. An analysis by VantageScore, which creates scores based on credit reports, found that 4.3 percent of consumers with a late payment had skipped their mortgage but kept their car note and credit card payments current.
“They’re at that tipping point where it’s like, okay, we’re headed toward bankruptcy if we do this,” Maddux said.
The trend is particularly pronounced among subprime consumers, many of whom were saddled with home loans they could not afford. An analysis by TransUnion found that 30.4 percent of subprime households were behind on their mortgage payments but current on their credit card payments at the end of last year. Meanwhile, only 12.3 percent were late on their cards but up to date on their home loans.
Blake Fetrow, chief attorney with Maryland’s Legal Aid Bureau, said he regularly counsels families struggling to stretch their money. He tells them to take care of bills first and creditors second.
“That’s a very personal thing,” he said. “Is it going to be the heat? Is it going to be the water? What do I have to leave off to make it through this month?”
In addition, Fetrow said, families often mistake moral obligations to pay off debt for legal ones.
Olivia Stanfield, 67, of Riverdale fell into debt after her husband died several years ago. She had handled the bookkeeping for the construction company he owned, and thought she could manage it by herself. But soon she was overwhelmed and was forced to dig into her own wallet to pay off the business’s debt, racking up $40,000 on credit cards in the process.
“I thought I could make it work. I thought I knew enough to keep it going,” she said.
Stanfield lost her home in Southeast Washington three years after her husband’s death and moved in with her daughter in Riverdale. With Social Security as her only income, her credit card payments became insurmountable and she stopped putting money toward them about a year ago, she said. Now Stanfield is considering filing for bankruptcy, which would shield her from debt collectors.
But there is one bill that she is determined to keep up: her medical bill. She has only $100 left to pay for some dental work, she said.
Actually, make that $60. Stanfield remembered that she recently sent $40.
“I figure that type of thing I need to pay for,” she said.