Credit cards are now almost a permanent fixture in most Americans’ wallets. Multiple studies have shown that about 7 in 10 Americans have at least one credit card. Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta data released in August 2019, for example, found 75.5% of consumers had at least one credit card.
These numbers by themselves are not alarming: credit cards are tools you can use to your benefit. The points, bonuses, and low introductory rates are powerful when used correctly. But when it comes to debt, credit card debt is often the most damaging and pervasive.
Those low introductory rates will eventually expire, leaving you with an overwhelmingly high credit card balance and bad money habits. When you get used to subsidizing your lifestyle via credit card and just barely making the minimum payments each month, you’ll be in credit card debt for a long, long time. Along the way, you’ll also likely pay thousands of dollars in interest to the credit card companies.
Maybe you’re aware of the pitfalls of credit cards now, but let’s say you charged $8,000 on a credit card with 17% APR for textbooks during college. You then put the credit card away and never spent another dollar on it, and did the responsible thing by paying the minimum payment each month. It would take you 16 (!) years to pay off that credit card, and you’d pay nearly $7,000 extra in interest (depending on the terms of your agreement). Clearly, it’s important to manage credit card debt.
If there’s one non-negotiable task you take away from this article, it’s this: always pay at least the minimum payment on your credit cards. While making the minimum payment doesn’t help you make real progress in paying off your credit card debt, it’ll at least stave off the interest and late payment fees. When you miss payments, it becomes harder to catch up and eventually your accounts could go into default.
Possibly the most difficult move on this list—making a phone call to your credit card provider. Many people don’t know that they can negotiate a lower interest rate or work with the credit card company on a plan to pay their credit card off. Getting the interest rate lowered can save you a lot of money over time.
If you’re skeptical, remember that most credit card companies will not advertise this leeway in rates because it doesn’t help them at all. If you’ve been paying your bills on time and have been a long-time customer, many credit card issuers (though not all) are willing to help you out.
Author of I Will Teach You to be Rich, Ramit Sethi has a script you can use to call your credit card company to get your interest rates reduced. Find it here.
Many people use credit cards because they simply don’t have the option to delay spending or to align it to their pay cycle. Many business owners and freelancers may not get paid for months.
Without access to an emergency fund, or without enough time to build up a cash reserve of multiple months, people go into debt to cover regular expenses. Throw in a new tire, medical debt, or unexpected late payment fees, and it’s the beginning of a cycle of debt average people may stay in forever.
To truly rid yourself of credit card debt, find a little breathing room in your budget. Even if it’s $10-20 at a time, work toward creating a small emergency fund—$1,000 is a good place to start. Once you have that, make it your goal to create a bigger fund, like $2,000. Eventually, you want to build up a reserve of three to six months of living expenses.
If you’re serious about paying off your credit card debt and have completed the step above, one option is to transfer your credit card balance to a different card.
You can use the balance transfer strategy to reduce the interest rate you pay on your high-interest credit card debt and buy you time to focus on each credit card payoff. Many balance transfer credit cards even offer a 0% APR for an introductory period (often 6–18 months).
How does this work? Say you have $6,000 of credit card debt at an 18% APR. You could transfer that balance to a card that offers a 0% APR for 12 months. If you pay off your debt in that period, you’d save more than $600 in interest.
Use this tool with caution. Credit card companies are, after all, profit-focused and will levy interest on your account as soon as the interest period is over. There may also be balance transfer fees and other catches. Make sure you have a plan (or the money saved up) to pay off your credit card completely after doing a balance transfer.
Most people associate creating a budget akin to starting a diet. But the idea of a budget shouldn’t come from a place of restriction or desperation. We’ve written about this before but your budget should give you the freedom to spend on what truly matters to you while ruthlessly cutting out things that don’t benefit you or your family.
Keeping a budget also helps you manage the inflows and outflows of cash so that you don’t have to fall back on a credit card to cover your expenses between pay cycles. Ideally, you should get to a point where you’re budgeting a month out (so in October you’d have enough cash to cover mid- to late-November expenses). Remember that this is a goal to work towards—it will likely take you months of learning and adjusting to get to this point.
Young people are often given credit cards along with some well-intentioned advice. It is up to you to understand proper credit card use without falling prey to harmful myths about money and debt. For example, carrying a balance on your credit card will likely not help your credit score. In fact, not paying your bill on time will harm your credit, since payment history is the biggest factor considered when calculating your credit score.
On the other hand, credit cards are good to use for things like building your credit history, earning reward points, and as a more secure form of payment than cash.
Unless you’re on a cash-based budget like Dave Ramsay’s envelope method, it’s more than likely that you have some credit card debt as part of your personal finances. This does not mean that you’re bad with money or that you need a complete overhaul of your finances. But managing credit card debt requires time, planning, and vigilance. Given a good understanding of credit card usage, some budgeting and planning, and timely payments, you can reduce the stress that comes with high interest debt.