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Americans are increasingly reaching for the plastic in their wallets to cover what their paychecks won’t.

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Even though evidence is mounting that the U.S. economy may be soon heading into a recession, there are plenty of analysts who say that the surge in credit card borrowing is a sign of strong confidence [1]among households. That’s hardly the case. In fact, households’ confidence in the future growth of their incomes has been cooling since late last summer, which means borrowers will only reach for what’s in their wallet to compensate for what their paychecks will not cover.

Many working adults have no recollection of credit card borrowing not being a mainstay among their financing options. But then, few would be able to identify a Diners Club card, which was a popular brand during the 1980s “yuppie” era when Americans first began to embrace credit card spending in earnest. These days, consumers are not keen to lean on credit cards, partly due to a cultural and financial shift in the industry.

The financial crisis arguably altered households’ views on charging beyond their means. It didn’t hurt that the availability of subprime credit all but disappeared for a few years or that the interest rate on credit cards remained in double-digit territory despite the Federal Reserve’s zero interest rate policy. That said, the idea of frugality re-entered many households’ thinking in the wake of the severe hardship the foreclosure crisis brought to bear on millions of working Americans. Debit cards became the predominant form of plastic used at the checkout.

And yet, consumer credit likely rounded out 2019 at a new $4 trillion milestone as runaway...

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