Something unusual has happened to our credit card balances this Christmas

Australian consumers launched into their annual Christmas spending spree with the average credit card debt at the lowest level in a decade.

The latest figures on card use from the Reserve Bank shows the typical outstanding credit card balance was $3061.90 at the end of October, the lowest since late 2007.

That's more than $300 lower than when Australia's average credit card debt peaked in 2012.

The typical outstanding credit card balance was $3061.90 at the end of October, the lowest since late 2007. Photo: Greg Newington

The typical outstanding credit card balance was $3061.90 at the end of October, the lowest since late 2007. Photo: Greg Newington

Craig James, an economist at stockbroker CommSec who analyses credit card spending, believes young consumers have contributed to a shift in credit card use.

"Welcome to the age of the 'new consumer'," he said.

"There's a generational change happening at the moment. It appears that Gen Ys and Millennials prefer to pay with debit cards rather than credit cards."

Mr James estimates the share of credit cards using their maximum credit limit in October was the smallest in 19 years.

In a further sign of changing behaviour, the total number of credit cards on issue in October was lower than a year earlier - the first annual decline since credit cards started to transform the way we pay during the 1980s.

The share of payments made with credit and debit cards has been growing rapidly. A Reserve Bank survey released earlier this year showed 52 per cent of all Australian payments in 2016 were made with credit and debit cards, up from 43 per cent in 2013.

But consumers have grown more reluctant to take on credit card debt.

Mr James said the 2008 global financial crisis had caused households to adopt a more cautious posture. An extended period of low wages growth had also made consumers more wary of card debt.

"The old adage that Australians spend like there's no tomorrow and whack it on the plastic card has basically gone out the window," said James.

"People are now more likely to keep their credit card in order."

A decade ago, credit card debt was booming. Between 2000 and 2010 the number of credit cards on issue surged by 6 million and Australia's collective credit card debt nearly quadrupled from $12.5 billion to $49 billion.

The nation's outstanding credit card balance hit $50 billion for the first time in 2011 but growth has been far more subdued since. The total reached $52.8 billion in December 2017 but had fallen back to $51.2 billion in October.

The share of credit card balances accruing interest (that is card debt not subject to an interest-free period) has declined much more sharply. After reached an all-time high of $37.1 billion in April 2012 the share of card debt attracting interest has been slashed by over $5 billion. It stood at $31.6 billion in October.

Personal credit data released by the Reserve Bank on Friday was consistent with the trend for consumers to be more cautious about card debt. It showed personal credit down by 0.2 per cent in November and 1.2 per cent lower over the year - the biggest annual decline in more than five years.

The Reserve will release detailed figures on December 2017 credit card spending in late February.

This story Something unusual has happened to our credit card balances this Christmas first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.