Americans have significantly changed their attitudes toward debt

Since the recent recession began and ended, consumers have seen their personal finances change drastically and that, in turn, has reshaped their attitudes toward how they choose to deal with debt.

At the end of 2010, families generally had less debt than they did in 2007, due largely to the financial uncertainty that the recession created for millions of Americans, according to new data in the latest Federal Reserve Board's Survey of Consumer Finances. For instance, just 74.9 percent of all families surveyed said they carried at least some amount of debt, down from 77 percent in 2007, though the median value of balances carried by indebted households was generally unchanged. Further, the number of families whose debt obligations remained higher than their 40 percent of their overall incomes held steady as well.

But at the same time, many consumers were more conscientious about making sure their credit card bills were reduced significantly, the report said. The number of families carrying credit card debts dropped to 39.4 percent in 2010, down from 46.1 percent just three years earlier. In all, 68 percent of families had any type of card, but 55.1 percent of those had a balance. Further, 32.7 percent of families had four credit cards or more, compared with 35 percent in 2007.

During this time, the median balance carried by households with credit card debt slipped by 16.1 percent, to about $2,600, the report said. The average balance, meanwhile, declined to $7,100, a drop of 7.8 percent. Further, credit card balances as a portion of consumers' total indebtedness dropped to 2.9 percent, a low not seen at any point in the previous decade. The rate in 2007 was 3.5 percent, and the 2010 rate was also less than 2004's previous low of 3 percent.

Who controls that debt?
When it comes to the issuers of credit cards, consumers tended to rely heavily upon major lenders, the report said. Among families with credit cards, 95.8 percent had one issued by a bank (down from 2007's 96.3 percent), while 55.8 percent had accounts issued by a retailer or fuel company. Bank-issued cards also had 85.1 percent of all outstanding balances, even as the number of consumers who had this type of account and carried a balance declined to 52.4 percent of cardholders, down from 58.3 percent in 2007.

Cutting outstanding debt is a great way for consumers to get their accounts in order. Those who want to continue to get a better handle on their finances in 2012 might want to consider the value of ordering copies of their credit reports. This will help them identify any potentially unfair markings that can take an undue toll on their credit ratings. Working with a credit repair company can often help to clear these issues up relatively quickly, so that consumers can get back to where they should be.