Americans not only have a ton of credit card debt, but also are embarrassed by their plight. This combination can cause big problems for budgets and bottom lines.
There is perhaps no debt more reviled than a revolving credit card balance, and with good reason. Average interest rates are dramatically high, making it expensive to service credit card debt. While a mortgage comes with tax benefits and the hope of increased property value, and people need a car loan to get to work and run errands, maintaining a credit card balance is seen as a failing of personal responsibility. Maybe if you didn’t buy that big screen television set, you wouldn’t be in this mess.
If you carry a balance, this moralistic narrative doesn’t really help you understand what’s driving your debt load, and it won’t help you find your financial footing. Here’s what you need to know about credit card debt and what you can do about your bill.
Who has the most debt?
If you have credit card debt, you really don’t want other people to know about it, according to a survey from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. Respondents were more willing to reveal their weight or bank balance than share how much they owe or their credit score. Maybe that’s because debt makes you less appealing as a possible dating partner?
While debt may be distasteful, it isn’t uncommon. The Federal Reserve, for instance, recently announced that consumers hit a new record level of credit card debt, surpassing the highs seen during the worst of the financial crisis. An online poll by American Consumer Credit Counseling found that nearly half of respondents had a household debt over $10,000.
And among those in debt, the more you earn, the higher your credit card balance. The most recent Survey of Consumer Finances by the Fed found that the top percentile of earners carry $12,500 in debt, or nearly three times as much as middle-income workers.
Lack of savings
Credit card debt goes hand-in-hand with a lack of financial security. About half of those who earned $75,000 or more could not easily pay for an unexpected car repair costing $500, or a $1,000 trip to the emergency room, a Bankrate survey found. Nearly three-quarters of Americans have a hard time saving anything because of unplanned expenses, according to the Pew Charitable Trust.
Most people are simply worried about getting from one day to the next while keeping a roof over their head. As a result, credit cards provide a necessary safety valve to those who need to get their car back up and running, or didn’t plan for an appendectomy.
What to do
The first step is to improve your savings through automation.
The Pew study found that people who created a budget were not particularly adept at beefing up their savings. Instead, you might want to consider dedicating a certain percentage of your direct deposit to a high-yielding savings account with the goal of reaching three to six months’ worth of expenses. This cushion should lessen the need to take out more credit card debt.
When it comes to dealing with the debt you’ve already racked up, it pays to start small. Research shows that the “snowball method” of paying off your lowest balance first, and building moment from there, helps cancel out your debt quicker than going after the card with the highest APR.
Lay out your various debts on a spreadsheet and set up an auto payment until you work the debt down to zero. Then go after the next smallest fish.
You might also consider a balance transfer credit card to more easily pay off your debt. Cards offer a 0% interest period after you move your balance from one card to the next, with some products giving you as many as 21 months of no interest. Divide your balance by the number of zero percent interest months on the card to pay off your card before the interest kicks back in.
Also give yourself a break. Credit card debt is an issue to be resolved, rather than a moral failing.