The Intersection of Financial Institutions and Technology Leaders

Why Some Savers Don’t Pay Down Debt

By Laura Alix

In an era of rising interest rates, it would make good financial sense for consumers to pay off costly credit card debt before stashing money in a low-interest savings account. But a new paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston finds many consumers acting irrationally. These so-called “borrower-savers,” as Fed economists term them, carry revolving credit card debt while simultaneously holding liquid assets in their bank accounts. Understanding their motivations for doing so could help bankers identify new opportunities to connect with their customers.

Based on 2019 survey data, Boston Fed economists identify 42% of respondents as borrower-savers, meaning they carry $100 or more in revolving credit card debt while also holding at least $100 in liquid assets, defined as cash, money in checking and savings accounts, or prepaid cards.

Just 40% of these consumers have liquid assets that exceed their credit card debt. The average borrower-saver carries around $5,400 in liquid assets and nearly $6,400 in revolving credit card debt, according to the researchers. On the whole, borrower-savers are financially worse off than savers, who pay down revolving credit card debt every month.

“On the surface it would seem like there is a paradox here. You get paid a fraction of a percent on your deposits in the bank … That’s nothing compared to the interest rate that credit cards charge,” says Joanna Stavins, a senior economist and policy advisor with the Boston Fed. “If you have money in the bank, why not pay down that credit card debt?” 

But scratch the surface, and that behavior actually starts to make a lot more sense: Researchers also find that over 80% of consumers’ monthly bills need to be paid out of a bank account and can’t be charged to a credit card.

Still, that imbalance between savings and paying down pricier debt is one of those quirks of human behavior that has myriad implications for banks. For those banks not in the credit card business, it could mean an opportunity to sell their customers on cheaper consolidation loans. It could also represent an opportunity to build goodwill with customers by offering assistance with managing bills or automating savings.

Ron Shevlin, managing director and chief research officer with Cornerstone Advisors, notes that younger generations could be likelier to use technology to get a handle on their finances. “I think that resonates especially with a lot of younger consumers who have had it drilled into them that they have to be better at managing their finances,” Shevlin says. “You get somebody who’s 25; those habits have not been ingrained yet. And so the technology, the tools, and I think more importantly, the philosophies and approaches to managing their finances have not been solidified yet.”

For most banks, offering the right solutions will have them working with their digital banking provider or another third party. Fintechs such as Plinquit work with community banks to help their customers set savings goals and earn rewards for achieving them, according to Bank Director’s FinXTech Connect platform.

The Boston Fed’s paper doesn’t delve into the effect of higher incomes on saving and borrowing behaviors. Or in other words, the researchers could not say that higher income enables consumers to start saving more and avoid carrying a credit card balance in the first place. Yet, savers tend to have higher incomes, averaging about $98,000 per year compared to less than $76,000 for borrower-savers. On average, savers hold about five times more liquid assets compared to borrower-savers, as well as higher credit limits and lower mortgages due to more equity in their homes. And just a third of borrower-savers could cover a $2,000 emergency expense using liquid assets, compared to two-thirds of savers.

The proportion of borrower-savers fell from 42% to 35% in 2020, note the Boston Fed researchers, likely due to pandemic-related federal assistance programs as well as increased saving by people who kept their jobs but cut back on spending.

With the employment picture still relatively strong, borrower-savers are generally in decent shape at the moment. But Stavins notes that many of the borrower-savers studied in the paper also have other kinds of debt; she worries how the picture could change if economic conditions further deteriorate.

The imbalance between savings and spending could worsen. “What I’m worried about,” she says, “is that people are going to start relying on credit card debt more as the economy gets potentially worse.”