Despite high unemployment and foreclosure rates and other economic stresses, consumers in the Orlando area have managed to pay down their credit-card debt faster in the past year and a half than cardholders in all but three other large U.S. metro areas, according to figures released Tuesday by Equifax Inc.
Cardholders in the four-county metropolitan area have cut their "plastic" debt load 8.5 percent in the past 20 months through August -- fourth-best showing among the 25 biggest metro areas, according to Equifax, the Atlanta-based credit-reporting company.
Orlando trailed only Las Vegas, Detroit and Los Angeles, the survey reported. Tampa-St. Petersburg (8.0 percent) and Miami-Fort Lauderdale (7.6 percent) were ranked sixth and seventh.
Metro Orlando consumers also had the second-lowest cumulative credit-card debt -- $4.02 billion -- as of Aug. 31, Equifax reported. Only Las Vegas had a lower tally, with $3.7 billion.
In comparing the figures to U.S. Census data, it's clear that, in many instances, credit-card debt loads track a metro area's population. But Equifax said the big paydown of debt by consumers in Orlando and other Florida cities in the latest report indicates the Sunshine State's economic recovery still lacks traction.
"In places where the housing bust was the worst, such as Florida, California and Nevada, consumers are continuing to be prudent about using credit," said Trey Loughran, president of Equifax's consumer unit. "In other pockets of the country, consumers are feeling a bit more confident to take on new debt."
In the 12 months that ended Aug. 31, total credit-card debt fell in 13 of the 25 metro areas, according to the study. Of the dozen areas where the debt load increased, Houston led the way with a 1.9 percent rise, followed by Washington-Baltimore with 1.15 percent.
Paul Gregg, a former corporate executive who teaches personal finance at University of Central Florida, said it was encouraging to see more consumers getting their finances in order.
"Individuals should do the same thing businesses do when the economy is tough -- cut their capital outlays and balance their budgets," he said. "Clearly, many consumers do that when the economy is bad, and they should do it when things improve as well. Unfortunately, that's not the way it usually works."
Although consumers deserve a "tip of the hat," for paying down their debt, there are many other factors that have also forced them to take action, said Bill Hardekopf, chief executive of LowCards.com, a credit-card comparison site.
"The card issuers have brought on some of that themselves," he said. "During the downturn and recession, they got burned when so many customers defaulted and left them holding the bag. They started decreasing their financial risk, cutting credit limits on millions of customers, canceling many accounts, and tightening approval standards for others.
"At the same time, customers got burned by higher interest rates and fees, and that forced them to realize they just can't keep on using these cards to spend what they can't afford to pay off," he said.
Said Loughran of Equifax: "We are seeing the trend of the disciplined consumer. We don't know whether this is a long-term change yet, but generally speaking, Americans today continue to be prudent about credit."
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