Which counties have best credit-card balances?

Led by Wabash, southern counties make strong showing for credit-card solvency

 Beall-Orr House in Mount Carmel in Wabash County is on the National Registry of Historic Places. (Public Domain)

Beall-Orr House in Mount Carmel in Wabash County is on the National Registry of Historic Places. (Public Domain)

By Ted Cox

Which Illinois counties have the best record for credit-card debt?

Led by Wabash County in the southeast, southern counties make a strong showing, according to a new study released by SmartAsset.

First things first, though: SmartAsset is a tech company offering financial advice, and when you check out the Illinois data it will first offer a bunch of tips on how to reduce credit-card debt — not that that’s a bad thing, but consider yourself warned.

After that, however, the data it arrives at are nonetheless interesting. Charting per capita credit-card debt against average income and wealth, it arrives at a “Lowest Credit Card Debt Index” — basically an indication of how readily the average resident can pay off the average credit cards.

By that measure, Wabash County on the banks of the Wabash River across from Indiana comes in first among the 102 Illinois counties, with a 100 index. In fact, Wabash actually ranks as the most solvent county in the nation, according to SmartAsset’s index, with a per capita income of $25,000 and per capita wealth of $28,000, weighed against an average credit-card debt of $1,250.

Mercer and Henry counties on the western edge of the state, just south and east of the Quad Cities, come in second and third in Illinois, but followed by Randolph and Wayne counties in a return to the southern portion of the state to fill out the top five.

Randolph and Wayne counties both have incomes and wealth comparable to Wabash, but with slightly higher credit balances of about $1,700. Wayne County in particular has to be considered a bastion of fiscal conservatives. As One Illinois has noted before, it was the strongest county in the state for Donald Trump in 2016, with 84 percent of votes cast for the president, but it has avoided falling victim to a corresponding increase in opioid abuse found in other Trump strongholds.

After that, the rankings bounce back and forth between central Illinois and the northwest corner of the state, with Piatt County sixth, Carroll County (including Savanna) seventh, Macon County eighth, and Jo Daviess County ninth, followed by southern White County to round out the top 10.

Here’s where overall wealth begins to factor in. Both central Piatt County and Jo Daviess County in the northwest corner have significant credit-card debt of about $2,500, but also overall wealth of about $55,000 per capita, no doubt elevated by strong home values in Monticello and Galena. Thus, both have credit-card balances under 5 percent of overall wealth.

Comparing income and wealth yields interesting results. Weighing debt as a percentage of income, southern counties make up half the top 10, with the aforementioned Wabash, Wayne, Randolph, and White counties joined by Effingham County in sixth place.

Weighing debt against overall wealth, however, counties in central and northwest Illinois claim eight of the top 10 spots. Mercer seizes the top spot, joined by the aforementioned Henry, Carroll and Jo Daviess counties, with Piatt County in fourth place joined by in central Illinois by Woodford, Marshall, and Mason counties ranked seven, eight, and nine.

Chicago’s Cook County, with its extremes of poverty, wealth, and high credit balances, ranked 81st among Illinois counties, while suburban Will and DuPage placed in the top 20.

Several Illinois counties, primarily at the southern tip but also in the south-central and southwest parts of the state, did not produce enough data to be ranked in the SmartAsset study.