Credit Cards: Disentangling the Dual Use of Borrowing and Spending

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Over the past 15 years, aggregate credit card balances have been increasing, except for a brief spell in the aftermath of the 2007–09 financial crisis. Determining whether the growing balances are due to increased usage of credit cards as a method of payment or whether they reflect increased short-term borrowing is challenging because aggregate balances are snapshots of charges on credit cards before households make their monthly payments. In this note, we exploit household-level survey data to distinguish between the dual use of credit cards for borrowing or paying for purchases.We find that the growth in credit card balances over the past 15 years reflects increased usage of credit cards for payment (i.e., spending) rather than increased short-term borrowing.