Michelle Singletary's Color of Money

Credit card charge-offs, or uncollectible debt, surged to a 20-year high.
Credit card charge-offs, or uncollectible debt, surged to a 20-year high. (Bloomberg News)
By Michelle Singletary
Thursday, April 23, 2009

It used to be that many folks didn't worry when money got tight because the minimum payments on their credit cards were so low.

If you only had to pay as little as 2 percent of what you owed, you might not make much of a dent in your principal but you could at least keep current.

That was then. This is now.

Now many credit card users, suffering from job losses or other effects of the recession, can't even make the minimum payment on their card -- or cards -- pushing credit delinquencies to all-time highs, according to the Fitch Credit Card Index, which measures the percentage of credit card receivables that are reported more than 60 days past due.

The delinquency index has increased 36 percent in the past six months.

"We are in uncharted territory for credit card losses," said Michael Dean, a managing director for Fitch Ratings.

Credit card charge-offs, or uncollectible debt, surged to 8.82 percent in February, a 20-year high, according to the latest report by Moody's Credit Card Index.

For years, legitimate nonprofit credit-counseling agencies have helped people negotiate repayment plans. Creditors have offered concessions including waiving late and over-the-limit fees and reducing interest rates.

The problem is that, for a growing number of consumers who are so deep in debt and don't earn enough, traditional creditor concessions aren't sufficient to help them qualify for the typical repayment plan.

Last year, an estimated 405,000 who were counseled by member agencies with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling or the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies were turned down for repayment plans, according to Gail Cunningham, vice president of public relations for NFCC.

In an effort to help many families who want to honor their consumer debt obligations, the NFCC has struck a deal with the nation's top 10 credit card issuers to roll out two special debt repayment plans.

"We want to help consumers pay back their debts and avoid bankruptcy," said Susan C. Keating, president and chief executive of NFCC.

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