Credit card debt is a major problem in the United States. According to the Consumer Federation of America, 80% of all households have at least one credit card. In addition, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston estimates that there are more than 609 million credit cards held by U.S. consumers. For those households with card balances, the average credit card debt is more than $15,000.
It is not uncommon or difficult for credit card use to get out of hand. In fact, our society promotes credit card use through incentive programs, loyalty programs, promotions, and advertising. Consequently, many consumers find themselves struggling to make even their minimum monthly payments. Regardless, new credit card offers arrive in the mail constantly, along with those checks inviting consumers to go ahead and “take that vacation” or “make those home improvements.” At first, it may seem tantalizing. But buying regularly on credit can quickly become a vicious cycle, creating a case of the credit card blues.
The following warning signs may be an indication of the credit card blues:
- You use credit cards to pay for basic needs, like food and gas.
- You are only able to pay the minimum balance due on your cards each month.
- You’re paying above-average interest rates and can’t find lower rates because of your credit score.
- You aren’t able to contribute to a savings account or IRA.
- You don’t know how much you charge or how much you owe.
- You lose sleep over your mounting debt.
- You transfer balances frequently to avoid credit card payments.
If any of these sound familiar, take heart—you are not alone! However, it’s important that you take action now and create a plan to pay down your debt and avoid exacerbating the problem. You don’t have to resign yourself to living with the credit card blues.
To begin, make and maintain a worksheet to track your credit card use. You may do this by hand, using different colored markers for different creditors, or on the computer—whatever feels most comfortable. On your worksheet, include the names of your creditors, the last date of each payment, the annual interest rates, the minimum monthly payments, and the total amounts due.
Here are more simple steps to help you get back on your feet:
- Create a financial budget. Once you look at your expenses and figure out where all your money is going, you can look for areas where you can cut back, even temporarily, to free up some of your cash for credit card payments.
- Set up a repayment schedule and stick with it! Start paying the debts that carry the highest finance charges first.
- Don’t charge any more until your present debts are under control.
- Reduce your finance charges by using cards with the lowest possible rates.
- Avoid using checks that arrive in the mail from your credit card company. The value of each check you use will be added to your existing debt—plus extra transaction fees!
Of course, there are times when using credit is unavoidable. If you must use credit, try the following:
- Keep your cards in a safe place when you aren’t using them.
- Reduce the number of credit cards you carry to one or two.
- Keep your cards separate from your purse or wallet to prevent theft.
- Never give your credit card number out on the telephone, particularly if you did not place the call.
- If you have carbon receipts from your purchases, make sure all are properly destroyed by shredding.
- Shred all unsolicited and unwanted credit cards.
- Use your credit cards only for essential purchases and pay the balance as quickly as possible to avoid additional interest or late payments.
Remember, if you’re charging more than you’re paying, your credit card debt will always continue to increase. A meeting with your financial professionals can help you develop strategies for improving your spending, saving, and debt habits.