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Indicators when credit card debt is too high

You know you need to go on a diet if you have three pizzerias and a donut shop on your speed dial. But what is a sign your credit card debt is in trouble?  

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Catherine Williams, vice president of financial literacy for Money Management International, in Chicago, says the danger point for credit cards comes, "when you have to spend more than 20 percent of your take-home pay on them.

"This is a scary figure," she says, "but at least it is a marker post. We all want something to continually look toward.  Everybody wants to know where they are."

John Ventura, who runs the Center for Consumer Law at the University of Houston Law School, points out that you have to think in terms of take-home pay, because that is the money you have control over.

The outer limit is 20 percent. "If you are not able to pay a credit card off within 12 months, which means making a lot more than the minimum payment, then you are not financially sound in your financial dealings. You have too much debt," Ventura says.

"You have to take an attitude of aggressively reducing it, and that entails sacrifice. That means buying just what you need instead of what you want. You have to be really aware of what you are spending -- going to Starbucks or buying cigarettes."

It seems so simple, Ventura adds, "but people don't seem to have the desire to make those changes. The word sacrifice has become very unpopular."

Williams and Ventura offer some nonmathematical indicators that you might be too far in debt.

You're too far in debt ...
1. If you can't remember the last time you had zero balances on all your credit cards.
2. If your FICO score is below 650.
3. If you don't remember what you bought on your credit card last month.
4. If you don't really know how many coffees, teas, soft drinks or snacks you buy every week.
5. If you use your credit card for utilities, food, snacks and so on, and you're not doing it to earn frequent flier or bonus points.
6. If you have money in a 401(k), but you have to live on your credit cards in order to put it there.
7. If you have no money in any sort of general savings account.
8. If you're still paying for restaurant meals you can't remember eating.
9. If you have to take a cash advance from one credit card to make a payment on another one.
10. If you ever held a garage sale to raise money to make credit card payments.

Ventura admits it's tough to live without adding debt. "I think the only way people can do it is to budget, and I think most people don't know how to budget, or have the discipline or even the desire to budget. Their idea of budgeting is to look in their checkbook to see if they have money to spend."

Bankrate.com's corrections policy
-- Posted: June 4, 2007
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