Credit cards can be useful financial tools but used incorrectly, they can be destructive to an individual’s personal finances. The amount of credit card debt across the UK, along with supporting statistics, can give us insight into how Brits are using their credit cards.
Summary of findings
- Total credit card debt in the UK was £56.5 billion in August 2021. This is far less than the £72.1 billion reported in 2020.
- Average credit card debt per household was £2,033 as of August 2021. That figure represents an average of £1,068 per adult.
- In November 2021, the average representative rate on credit cards was around 21% according to the Bank of England. The figure is a sharp rise from the 18.67% reported at the beginning of 2019.
- In Q2 of 2021, bank write-offs of loans stood at £958 million, of which £366 million was credit card debt. This means banks wrote off £4 million of debt each day.
- Household debt of all types is forecast to rise from £2,006 billion to £2,345 billion by 2025.
Total credit card debt outstanding in the UK
Total credit card debt in the UK stood at £56.5 billion in August 2021. This is a big decline in credit card debt compared to the £72.1 billion reported at the beginning of 2020.
The economic impact of Covid-19 is likely the reason behind this huge £16 billion difference. That’s because lower household debt is likely to have been the result of many businesses closing their doors for large parts of 2020 due to successive government-imposed lockdowns.
Average UK credit card debt per household
Following along with total credit card debt, the average credit card debt per household stood at £2,033 in August 2021. This is a healthy decline from the beginning of 2020 when average household credit card debt stood at £2,592. Again, this drop is likely a direct result of the economic impact of Covid-19. That’s because the pandemic significantly limited what cardholders could spend their money on.
Interest rates on credit cards tend to be much higher than other forms of lending. At the midpoint of 2018, the average representative rate stood at 18.26%. By 2020, the average representative rate had risen to 20.65%.
While the Bank of England reports that the average rate hasn’t risen much over the past year, consumers should be wary of carrying debt on credit cards at standard rates.
Average credit card interest rates in the UK
Interest rates on credit cards tend to be much higher than other forms of lending.
At the midpoint of 2018, the average representative rate stood at 18.26%. By 2020, the average representative rate had risen to 20.65%. Now, in 2021, the average interest rate has risen to 21.43%, despite the Bank of England base rate at a historic low of 0.1% since March 2020.
Nonetheless, if you pay off your credit card balance each month, this shouldn’t deter you from getting a credit card. However, it does speak to the likelihood of racking up credit card debt for consumers who can’t pay off their balance. If that’s you, you may want to look into 0% balance transfer credit cards.
Quarterly credit card write-offs by UK banks
Part of the reasoning behind high interest rates on credit cards is the fact that banks regularly write off debts they won’t be able to collect. In the wake of the Great Recession, write-offs spiked, and in 2010, banks wrote off more than £2 billion in a single quarter.
In recent years, write-offs have fallen to much lower levels. In the quarter ending 30 September 2020, banks wrote off £365 million. And just one year later, in the third quarter of 2021, banks wrote off £335 million.
These lower levels of write-offs make credit card lending more profitable for banks. Low write-offs also encourage greater competition in the industry, which can lead to better deals for consumers, such as longer 0% introductory offers.
The burden of financial debt by age group
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), repaying debts causes the biggest burden among those aged 25-34. Of this age group, 28% said keeping up with repayments on bills, credit cards and loans was ‘somewhat’ of a burden, while 9% considered repaying bills a ‘heavy’ burden.
On a similar note, 26% of the 16-24 age group said repaying bills was ‘somewhat’ of a burden, while 9% – the same percentage as the 25-34 age group – said bill repayments were a ‘heavy’ burden.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the oldest age group had the least concerns about repaying debts. Of those aged 65 or over, just 2% said repaying debts caused a ‘heavy’ burden, with the vast majority of this group (91%) claiming bill repayments caused ‘no problem at all’.
The burden of financial debt by gender
When looking at non-property financial debt by gender, females were slightly more worried about debt than males. According to the ONS data, 21% of females say repaying debts caused ‘somewhat’ of a burden, while 7% said debt repayments were a ‘heavy’ burden. For males, just 18% said their debts were ‘somewhat’ of a burden, while 6% said they were a ‘heavy’ burden.
The burden of financial debt by region
Interestingly, there is quite a lot of variation in attitudes to debt depending on where individuals are located in the country. Those most concerned about their debts include those living in London, with 25% of this group claiming their debts cause ‘somewhat’ of a burden. Meanwhile, 9% of Londoners said their debts were a ‘heavy’ burden. This may not be surprising given that the UK’s capital city has the highest living costs in the country.
Another region of the UK worried about the cost of repaying debts is the West Midlands. Of this group, 24% said they were ‘somewhat’ concerned about their debts, while 9% said having to repay what they owe was a ‘heavy’ burden.
At the other end of the scale, those living in the South East were the least concerned about their debts. Just 16% of this group claimed their debts caused ‘somewhat’ of a burden, while just 5% said their bill repayments were a ‘heavy’ burden. Interestingly, a massive 79% of this group said their debts were of no concern.
How the COVID-19 pandemic affected credit card debt
The Bank of England has suggested that the number of households with a high consumer credit debt burden increased slightly in the months following the Covid-19 pandemic. However, reduced consumer spending and a decline in credit card balances due to lockdown restrictions helped to offset income drops.
The Bank of England has also revealed many Britons used accumulated savings resulting from Covid-19 to repay credit card debts.
More generally, it is understood that there is little evidence to suggest household debt amplified the Covid-19 recession due to a number of government policy interventions – such as income support and payment deferrals – which supported household finances.
A view of credit card debt in the UK
The statistics above give us a view of the levels of credit card debt in the country, as well as how consumers feel about the debts that they hold.
Looked at in the aggregate, credit card debt can actually be a sign of an improving economy, as it signals that consumers are more confident about the future and borrowing more. It is also likely a signal that less debt is getting written off by banks.
However, it’s important to weigh that economic signal against the fact that interest rates on credit cards are typically very high. Taking on and holding credit card debt can be a burden on households and lead to financial insecurity. For that reason, it’s important that consumers understand credit cards well, and understand both the advantages they have and the risks they pose.
Consumers looking to borrow using a credit card should consider exploring a 0% purchase credit card. Used correctly, this type of credit card enables interest-free borrowing, making standard rates redundant.
We have endeavoured to use only high-quality primary sources for this research, and have cited sources with each graph. Some of the statistics require calculations on our part and may therefore not match exactly other sources of the same information (average credit card debt per household, for example, relies on matching up-to-date figures for both total UK credit card debt and the number of households in the UK). Key sources include the Bank of England and the Office for National Statistics.
- The Money Statistics October 2021 – The Money Charity.
- Household Debt and Covid – The Bank of England.
- Household debt in Great Britain – Office for National Statistics.
- Estimates of credit balances and credit and debit impacts on personal and economic well-being – Office for National Statistics.
- Quoted household interest rates on consumer credit – The Bank of England.