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To change the future, you need to understand the past. Looking back can be hard, though, especially regarding financial matters. According to a 2022 Money and Mental Health survey, conducted by Bankrate and Psych Central, 49 percent of the respondents said reviewing their bank accounts triggers anxiety.
One reason so many people are resistant is escalating consumer liabilities. TransUnion reported that U.S. credit card balances grew to a record $866 billion by the end of 2022.
So where did all your credit card debt come from and how much is it costing you? The answers are in your statements. If you don’t examine them, even higher balances can result.
Avoidance is common and normal
You may have every intention of opening your credit card statements, but something else invariably comes up. Or you’ve already decided that you won’t open them because you know you won’t like what you see, so shred the letter or hit delete immediately.
“It’s very common for cardholders not to review their statements each month,” says Thomas Nitzsche, senior director at the nonprofit credit counseling organization Money Management International. “While apps, alerts and online access have helped make this information more accessible, it’s psychologically and emotionally unpleasant for some consumers to look at their spending.”
In fact, says Dr. Dana McNeil, a San Diego, California-based marriage and family therapist, as humans we are hard-wired to avoid dealing with what is uncomfortable and tend to do the things that feel good.
‘We know we need to take care of ourselves, budget, plan for the future, build six months of emergency savings, but we prioritize pleasure,” says McNeil. “Then we build up layers of guilt and shame because we know what we should be doing but aren’t. It’s easy to avoid, too. As adults, no one is checking in. Your parents aren’t making sure you’re doing your homework.”
How ignoring statements can lead to deepening debt
“Avoiding a problem, especially one tied to your credit, can lead to possible long-term losses,” says Nitzsche, pointing to another recent Bankrate survey showing that 43 percent of cardholders don’t know the interest rates on all their accounts with balances. “As such, it’s likely that they also don’t know how much interest they are paying each month.”
When the interest rates on your accounts are high, and you’re making small payments and adding charges to the account each month, your debt will not just increase but become very expensive.
Without looking at your credit card statements, you may not notice that you’re paying for goods and services you can’t really afford. As the months go by, the balance grows. If you haven’t been tracking your expenditures and don’t review your statements that show all your transactions, you can’t identify your role in the problem.
Another issue that can occur when you don’t regularly check your statements is missing what Nitzsche calls “gray charges.” These are unnecessary recurring fees and unwanted subscription renewals that add to your debt. If you don’t see them, you’ll forget about them.
And then there’s credit card fraud. In general a credit issuer will detect it and warn you, but some instances of fraud can slip by when you’re not paying attention. For example, if a relative has access to your account and made charges you didn’t authorize at a store you frequent often, those transactions may slide under the radar. If you don’t read your statements, you’ll never know.
Credit card statements provide crucial clues
It’s time to change the narrative about your credit card statements. They aren’t scary; they’re a roadmap to getting out of debt and into financial control. These records will give you essential insight into what you need to do to make positive changes.
In addition to your current balance, which is most likely what you’re trying to ignore, credit card statements track:
- When and where you used the card for purchases
- Recurring charges, such as monthly subscription fees
- If you took out a cash advance
- Payments to the account you made during that cycle
- The minimum requested payment and the due date
- Interest the issuer charged on the balance
- The APR attached to the account
- Important messages, such as a late payment warning
- Any non-financing fees the issuer has added to the account
- Your credit line
- How long it will take to repay your current balance if you were to only pay the minimum, plus estimated interest costs
Clearly, these line items will show details about the way you’ve been handling your account, and how much carrying over debt is costing you.
Make powerful changes based on what you see on your statements
If you spot anything on your statements that is amiss, such as evidence of credit card fraud, you can now deal with it swiftly. Dispute all errors.
Don’t value those streaming services that are adding to your debt? Take a moment and unsubscribe.
If you’ve been hit with late fees, pay your bills on time from this point forward. That action will also help you improve your credit rating, since payment history is the most important credit scoring factor.
You may find that your credit card interest rates are prohibitively high, so take action. Contact the issuer and ask for a reduction (no guarantee they will, but it’s worth a try) or consider moving the debt to a 0 percent APR balance transfer credit card. As long as you delete the debt within the interest-free repayment period, all it will cost you is the nominal transfer fee.
Transactions that show up on your statements can also be a conduit to making better spending decisions. Going into it with a positive attitude is essential. If you’ve been using your credit cards on things you can’t afford, it’s time to create a budget that works for you.
“When you look at your statements and see all the debt you need to deal with, you may think you can never go out to dinner or take a vacation again,” says McNeil. “That’s not true. When you know what you have done you can put a game plan in place so you can.”
This may be the perfect opportunity to get help from the professionals, too. “Most Americans don’t know that they have access to nonprofit credit counselors, but there’s actually a phone number to reach us right on every single statement they receive — required by law,” says Nitzsche. “It’s a common experience among our counselors for new clients to bring bags of unopened envelopes to their counseling session.”
Not only can your counselor review those statements with you, at no charge, but at the end of the session, you may be presented with the option to use a debt management plan. These payment arrangements can reduce the interest rates on your credit cards and get you out of debt within three to five years.
Make staying on top of statements a habit
Once you’ve started the process of examining your credit statements, you will probably find it’s not as bad as you feared. After all, the information on these documents can help you achieve your goals, from getting out of expensive debt to refining your budget so you can get what you really want in the future.
You can also reduce anxiety by reviewing your credit card activity on an accelerated basis. Log onto your account or download the app and check to see how you’re doing at least once a week.
Pay close attention to the most current balance. If it’s creeping up to the point where paying the entire bill will be tough or impossible, hit the brakes on charging — you’re done for the month. You can even decide to make weekly payments, so you don’t end up with a scary debt at the end of the billing cycle.
Make a point of opening the statements when they come to you, and take the time to read them carefully. If you find this causes anxiety, create a calming ritual around bill time. Acknowledge how you’re feeling, make yourself a cup of tea, take a few deep breaths. When you make reviewing your statements a regular habit, you’ll find it becomes less difficult.
“Don’t think of reviewing your financial statements as a punishment,” says McNeil. “It’s self-care.”