7 signs your credit card debt is out of control – and 5 ways to fix it
The average American household with credit card debt owes a total of $16,140, but the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Some people can be overwhelmed with a few thousand dollars in credit card debt, while others can comfortably handle much more debt.
Here’s how to tell if your credit card debt is too high, and if so, what you can do about it.
The warning signs
Here are seven signs that could indicate that your debt load is getting too high. Keep in mind that not all of these apply to everyone with credit card debt, and just one or two of them may not indicate a problem.
- You have exhausted one or more credit cards. If you’re using more than, say, 70% of your available credit, that could be a sign of trouble. Continuing to spend could result in over-limit charges, lots of interest, and no safety net if you really need to use your cards for an emergency expense.
- You use your credit card to everything. Using your credit cards for small purchases that you would normally make with cash can be a sign that you are overwhelmed. Now, I’m not talking about charging for small purchases in order to earn rewards points or frequent flyer miles and then pay off your balance. On the contrary, if you use the credit for these small purchases because it is your only means of payment, it is generally of no use.
- Your debt to income ratio is too high. Although there is no hard and fast rule, general lending practices give us some guidance on how much of your income should be used to pay off your debts. When applying for a mortgage, lenders generally want to ensure that your mortgage payment does not exceed 28% of your income and that your total debt payments do not exceed 36%. This implies that around 8% of your income must be used to pay off your other debts. If your other debt payments (credit cards, car loans, etc.) are significantly higher than this amount, it could mean that you are in too much debt. If you earn $5,000 a month, your debt payments (excluding your mortgage or rent) should ideally be $400 or less. Of course, this is an ideal case, but a debt-to-income ratio of around 20% should be an absolute maximum.
- You can only afford the minimum payments. Making the minimum payments on your credit cards can result in decades of debt, not to mention paying many times the amount of your original purchases. For example, if you owe $15,000 at 18% interest and your minimum payment is $250 per month, it will take you almost 13 years to pay it off and you will end up paying a total of $38,500. Personally, I find a good rule of thumb is not to charge so much that I couldn’t pay it back within six months if I needed to. This means that if I divided my credit card balances by six, I could potentially pay that much per month without too much difficulty.
- Use another credit to make your payments. If you’re tapping into a line of credit, taking a cash advance on another credit card, or borrowing money just to make your credit card payments, that’s a big red flag. This does not solve the problem and will only make your debt worse since you will be paying yet another month of interest on the entire balance.
- Late or Missed Payments. If you are unable to make your payments by the due date, this is a sign of a serious problem. Not only will this make the problem worse by adding late payment fees and potentially increasing your APR, but it can seriously damage your credit score for years to come. Mistakes happen, and one late payment every few years isn’t going to kill your credit, but if late payments start to become a habit, it could cause you some serious financial headaches down the road.
- Lying about your debt. Have you caught yourself lying about how much credit card debt you owe to family or friends? It’s probably because you’re embarrassed at how bad the problem has become and you don’t even want to admit how much money you owe yourself, let alone others.
Five possible solutions
If you feel like you’re getting carried away, there are a few things you can do to try to fix the problem.
- Stop spending money. This seems like the most obvious solution, and it is, but all the other advice in the world won’t help you if you’re running up your credit card balances as fast as you pay them off. Set a budget and limit or eliminate your credit card spending until the problem is under control. Only then can the real damage control begin.
- Get a lower rate. If you’re having trouble making your payments, it’s worth calling your credit card companies and asking them to lower your rate. They won’t always say yes, but since it can save you a lot of money in interest and reduce the time it takes to pay off your debt, it’s worth asking. In the example above, $15,000 would take nearly 13 years if you were paying $250 a month at 18% interest. A 15% interest rate cuts the repayment term to just over nine years, and you’ll pay $10,500 less in the interest.
- Consolidate. Another option is to consolidate your debts, either by getting a debt consolidation loan from a bank or peer-to-peer lender, or by taking advantage of a 0% balance transfer offer. Consolidation loans tend to have higher interest rates than, say, a mortgage or car loan, but are likely to be much better than credit card interest. An even better option might be to find a new credit card to transfer all of your existing balances to. For example, the Chase the slate The card offers 0% interest on transferred balances for 15 months and has no balance transfer fees. So over the next 15 months, every penny you pay on your credit cards could be used to reduce the principle, not for interest.
- Then pay more than necessary. Once you’ve lowered your interest rates or consolidated your debt, it’s important to pay down the debt aggressively. Even a small increase in your payment now can mean a lot less interest down the road. This is especially important if you choose the 0% APR balance transfer route – you should repay as much as possible while interest is not accrued.
- Get a repayment plan. If the above options still result in a minimum monthly payment that is too much to handle, you may be able to work out a repayment plan with your creditors, either on your own or through a credit counseling service. . A great place to start is the National Foundation for Credit Counseling websitewhich is a non-profit organization that can help you control your debt.
The bottom line
If your credit card debt has gotten out of control, it doesn’t have to be a burden on your shoulders for years and years. There are several ways to master it without damaging your credit, so make the choice to start today.