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- Even higher-earning Americans suffer from credit card debt, often over a longer term than lower-income earners.
- Lifestyle creep — a gradual increase in spending on non-essential items as your income rises — can lead to significant credit card debt.
- Proven strategies for getting out of credit card debt include the snowball and avalanche repayment methods, nonprofit credit counseling, 0 percent balance transfer credit cards and debt consolidation.
Earn at least six figures yearly? You may be surprised to find that research suggests you’re vulnerable to long-term credit card debt. In fact, nearly three in four people who have U.S. credit card debt and an annual household income of $100,000 have been in debt for at least a year, according to Bankrate data.
Read on to learn more about who’s in credit card debt, what “lifestyle creep” is, the best way to pay off credit card debt and how to get help with credit card debt.
High earners and credit card debt insights
- 38 percent of cardholders with annual household incomes of $100,000 or more carry credit card debt. (Bankrate)
- 44 percent of cardholders with annual household incomes of $80,000 – $99,999 or more carry credit card debt. (Bankrate)
- 72 percent of respondents with credit card debt and annual household incomes of $100,000 have been in debt for at least a year. (Bankrate)
- 94 percent with annual household incomes of $80,000+ have a credit card. (Bankrate)
- 22 percent of the highest-income households ($100,000+ annual earnings) who have credit card debt cited vacation/entertainment expenses as the primary reason for their credit card debt. (Bankrate)
- 49 percent of workers earning six figures or more reported living paycheck to paycheck. (PYMNTS)
- 35 percent of Americans with credit cards admit they won’t be able to pay off those cards before the end of the year, including 34 percent of whom earn $150,000 or more annually. (Quicken)
Why is credit card debt an issue among higher earners?
It stands to reason that if you make more money, you’d be in a better position to repay your debts promptly and avoid significant credit card debt. But the latest findings, illustrated above, prove otherwise. So what’s behind these numbers?
“When people start earning more, they tend to spend more — increasing their expenses by purchasing a bigger home and better car, going on nicer trips and simply spending more on a day-to-day basis,” says Andrea Woroch, a personal finance expert. “It’s also important to note that many high-paying jobs are often located in areas that have a higher cost of living.”
Radhika Duggal, adjunct business professor of consumer behavior at New York University Stern, cites other contributors to this trend.
“Rising inflation can also have a pronounced impact on higher earners. Having greater access to extra money and disposable income can lead to overspending and financial complacency — diminishing the motivation to save and invest for the future,” she says. “High-income individuals may also have access to larger credit limits on their credit cards, leading to overconfidence in their ability to repay debt.”
Lower-income cardholders with an income under $50,000 are more likely to have credit card debt than those with annual household incomes of $100,000 or more (53 percent versus 38 percent, respectively).
“But long-term debt is more common among higher earners. Consider that if you currently have credit card debt, you’ve probably had it for longer if you have a higher income,” explains Ted Rossman, senior industry analyst for Bankrate.
The data also show that higher earners are prioritizing entertainment and vacations nowadays, even if that puts them in debt. Further, credit card debtors with annual household incomes of $100,000+ are slightly more likely than credit card debtors with annual household incomes below $50,000 to blame emergency expenses (43 percent compared to 40 percent, respectively).
Keep in mind: 45% of Americans believe it's not likely they'll be able to save enough money to comfortably retire, Bankrate's retirement savings survey found.
Credit card debt broken down by generation
Wondering how credit card debt impacts each age group? Take a closer look at the latest data:
|Generation||% of credit cardholders that carry credit card balances month-to-month||% that has at least one credit card||Median income|
|Sources: Bankrate, Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)|
|Boomers||41 percent||84 percent||$57,252 (age 65+)|
|Gen X||53 percent||73 percent||$62,894 (age 45-64)|
|Millennials||49 percent||74 percent||$59,046 (age 25-44)|
|Gen Z||52 percent||60 percent||$34,190 (age 16-24)|
Rossman says he isn’t surprised that a lower percentage of baby boomers carry credit card debt month-to-month, as they are often more financially secure and have had time to accumulate wealth.
“But I’m surprised how many Gen Zers carry credit card debt month-to-month. The conventional wisdom is that Gen Zers are debt-averse, largely because they have hefty student loan burdens and are wary of taking on additional debt,” he adds.
Millennials, meanwhile, often carry debt due to a mix of student loan debt, early career financial challenges and the allure of consumer spending, per Duggal. She believes that the burden of student loans and the transition from entry-level jobs to more stable income can make it challenging for Gen Y to fully pay off their credit card balances.
“Debt for Gen X, on the other hand, is likely due to significant financial responsibilities, including mortgages and children’s education as well as the desire to maintain a particular lifestyle with higher associated costs,” Duggal continues.
Avoiding lifestyle creep
One big reason why higher earners can get into credit card debt trouble is a phenomenon called “lifestyle creep.” This involves a gradual increase in spending on non-essential items as your income increases.
“It happens when you start spending more on wants than when your income was lower, often due to rewarding yourself, comparing yourself with others or facing unforeseen expenses,” Duggal says.
Say your salary goes from $50,000 to $100,000 over a few years, but your expenses also double — or more.
“If so, you’re not really getting ahead. Lifestyle creep becomes a form of ‘keeping up with the Joneses,’” says Rossman.
If this phenomenon strikes too close to home, here are five recommended ways to avoid lifestyle creep:
- Differentiate between your needs and wants, carefully prioritizing the former over the latter.
- Create a realistic budget that ensures you can afford what you purchase, with extra money left over every month for savings and emergencies. Also, track your purchases carefully to ensure you’re staying within it.
- Use credit cards responsibly without indulging in overspending.
- Resist the urge to splurge, indulge or treat yourself excessively; instead, focus on getting greater longevity out of the things you own and use, like your car.
- Set financial goals and reassess these objectives periodically.
How to get out of credit card debt
If you’re a high-earner carrying credit card debt, there are strategies that can help.
First, consider the debt snowball method. “The snowball method prioritizes paying off your smallest debts first, This has the advantage of building motivation by settling debts faster, allowing you to move on to bigger debts next,” says Christopher Stroup, a certified financial planner for Abacus Wealth Partners.
As an alternative, you can also try the debt avalanche approach. “This strategy prioritizes paying off your debts with the highest interest rates first. Once your first highest interest rate is repaid, you move onto the next highest interest rate debt,” advises Stroup. “This has the advantage of paying less interest over time.”
Depending on your credit standing, you may also be able to use a credit card to pay off debt, such as a 0 percent balance transfer credit card. “These offers last as long as 21 months. Your ability to move high-interest credit card debt over to a new card with a zero percent promotion lasting nearly two years could save you hundreds or maybe even thousands of dollars in interest charges,” says Rossman. “It’s important, of course, to use the time wisely to actually pay off the debt before the interest rate goes way up.”
If you’re in a significant amount of debt, consider consolidating debt. Pursue a debt consolidation loan, for example, that can make it simpler to repay your debt ideally with a lower interest rate. You may also want to explore nonprofit credit counseling — especially if you have a credit score below 670 or debt over $5,000. “Reputable agencies can walk you through the debt payoff process and can often negotiate something like a 7 percent or 8 percent interest rate over four to five years,” Rossman adds.
The average credit card balance per consumer is $5,910.
According to Ted Rossman with Bankrate, generally speaking, your heirs are not liable to repay your credit card debt when you die. The money comes out of your estate, and if there isn’t enough to go around, the credit card issuer takes a loss. But in community property states, surviving spouses could be liable for the credit card debt of a deceased spouse.
Per the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income was $74,580 in 2022.