Credit card debt got you down? You’re not alone

thAlmost seven in 10 people surveyed by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling say their biggest financial worry is credit card debt.

Of the 1,869 respondents, 69 percent cited plastic arrears as being much, much scarier than having enough for retirement and emergencies (13 percent), paying off student loans (10 percent) or finding affordable housing (7 percent).

About 19 people checked answer E: “Nothing, I have no financial worries.” Lucky them.

It’s likely that most of the people reading the nonprofit agency’s website are already having money issues. But it wouldn’t surprise me if a decent number of the general population were also worried about credit card debt. And if they aren’t, maybe they should be.


According to NerdWallet’s 2015 American Household Credit Card Debt Study, we’re sinking into debt – and sometimes the reason isn’t cute shoes or courtside tickets.

“While median household income has grown 26 percent since 2003, household expenses have outpaced it significantly – with medical costs growing by 51 percent and food and beverage prices increasing by 37 percent in that same span,” notes study author Erin El Issa.

Yet there’s tremendous shame associated with credit card debt, even if you’re going into the red to pay for essentials like medical treatment. Seven in 10 people surveyed by NerdWallet believe there is “a greater stigma around credit card debt than any other type of debt.”

Not that we apply the shame-brush equally. Only one in four of those surveyed say they’d judge a relative or friend for having credit card debt. However, almost half of them said that a card balance would make a potential suitor less interesting.

“The stigma is real, and it can be damaging and counterproductive,” says Sean McQuay, credit expert at NerdWallet.

“My message to Americans in debt: You are not alone. Reach out and see what’s worked for other people. Don’t ignore your debt – come to terms with it, and climb out of it.”


Slaying the credit card debt dragon

How does a debtor climb out? Let’s round up some of the usual suspects:

Track spending. Until you know where your money is going now, you can’t redirect it. Some swear by budgeting tools like Mint.com and PowerWallet.com; others kick it old-school with pen and paper and, maybe, spreadsheets. Do what works for you. Just get control of your cash.

Cut expenses. Once you know where your dollars currently go, you can look for ways to cut back. Pick the lowest-hanging fruit first, such as car insurance and cellphone plans. Next, get serious about trimming expenses for things like food eaten away from home (the coffee cart falls into this category), recreational shopping, apps and other downloads, and pretty much anything that isn’t a true need. As you reduce expenses, throw the saved dollars at your credit card debt.

Build an emergency fund. If you break your glasses or the car starts making a funny noise, you’ll be able to cover some or all of the costs with cash. Not adding to the debt you’re paying off = considerably less stress.

Look for a side hustle. This doesn’t work for everyone, but even an occasional part-time gig will help you retire debt/build savings faster. It need not be an official job such as bartending or retail; “find a niche and fill it” is a great way to bring in extra dollars. Once I interviewed a woman who walked a bunch of neighborhood children to school along with her own kid, earning $5 per kid for doing something she was going to do anyway.

Ask the NFCC for help. Credit counselors can help you build a budget, identify money leaks and maybe even negotiate lower interest rates with your creditors. This assistance is offered on a sliding scale basis, which means it could be free or nearly so.

(Note: I cover such tactics in “Your Playbook For Tough Times: Living Large On Small Change, For The Short Term Or The Long Haul.” From now through Oct. 31 you can get a PDF of the book for just $5 by visiting this link and typing in the code NFCC.)


Credit is a tool

If you have credit card debt but aren’t particularly worried about it, I’d be interested in hearing why. I can’t think of a worse way to not-leverage your money.

Even if the balance is on one of those zero-percent balance transfer cards you could still be walking the knife’s edge. Can you really predict that you will be able to pay it off in time? Having the amount in the bank right now doesn’t mean you’ll have it in the bank six months from now.

Understand: I’m not saying credit is bad. In fact, points from credit rewards credit cards and programs like Swagbucks and MyPoints will have paid for at least 90 percent of my birthday and holiday shopping this year.

Some frugality experts think that credit is a terrible idea. “Cash is king!” they trumpet, pretending that the current credit-score system doesn’t exist. Ignore credit cards and/or personal loans entirely at your own peril, however. If you don’t have a credit history you’ll pay more – probably a lot more – for things like vehicle loans, insurance and mortgages.

Is that fair? Not particularly. But it’s the system we have right now. A savvy consumer will learn to work within it.

Readers: What are your biggest money concerns at the moment?


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  1. Hi Donna,

    I only use a creditcard for booking a holiday and car rental abroad. Hope you no longer have backpain and Abby is okay. If she has trouble to order a bracelet in my sister’s webshop she also can visit etsy.com, click jewelry and search: MystiqueSieraden
    Have a nice day

  2. My biggest money concern right now is retirement. As long as I work, I am fine with paying bills and taking care of my needs/wants. I am not or have never been with a company with a pension plan. I work and save what I can to make sure that I will always have money. I had a few years with raising kids that I saved $250 towards retirement and that doesn’t amount to much dollar cost averaging. I use credit cards for all purchases…I love the easy bookkeeping and I usually get nice rewards…this year is almost $475!

    • Donna Freedman

      I use the credit card rewards heavily, too. My springtime trip to see my father was done with frequent flier miles, and as mentioned I’m paying for most special occasions with gift cards from rewards cards and programs.

      Retirement is an issue for me, too. Pretty sure I’ll be OK but it’s hard to be 100 percent certain.

  3. Kate Nelson

    I agree with Lisa O., my biggest concern now is saving enough for retirement. I enjoy my job and wouldn’t mind working till my full retirement age of 67 (I’m 60 now), or even till 70. I joined the 401(k) plan at my work as soon as I could, I get the full employer match, and I also have set it for automatic increases each year. So we will have to wait and see. Anything saved, no matter how small, is a lot better than nothing.

    As long as I’m healthy — and there is no real reason why that should change — we’ll be OK. If that does change, I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.

  4. Retirement is definitely a big concern. Compared to my parents generation, we have no pensions, Social Security looks like it will likely be capped by the time I retire, and it just seems like we fall further and further behind where I’d like to be.

  5. I only have one regular monthly debt other than bills like insurance, gas, groceries and such.

  6. Like the others, retirement is at the top of the “concern” list. Our spousal team goal is to knock out the mortgage within 5 years. Every little bit of extra gets tossed in the home loan hole. Just keep shoveling!

  7. I can’t quite imagine checking “I have no worries,” but at least credit-card debt isn’t among those worries anymore. I am finally at a point where I only use mine for operational spending (meaning things I pay off monthly or items I am leveraging for 2-3 months like a big car repair – which thankfully I haven’t had any of since I replaced my old car!). And even the DH has paid his off for the first time, like, ever.

    Job/retirement is and always will be a worry. We make good money, at 50 and 56, but expenses are high due entirely to where we live (and high income is contingent on living here). If I have to change jobs yet again (not unlikely) it will be stressful, but not disastrous. If on the other hand DH had to stop working in the next ten years (he’s self-employed) it would be a serious problem.

    We have a plan that gets us out of town, i.e. retired, by the time he’s 69. A lot of things can go wrong, but there’s not much point in dwelling on all those things. We just do the best we can. As long as there isn’t a work-ending disability, we should be fine. So we focus on health.

    • Donna Freedman

      Focusing on health and “operational spending” are two of my favorite frugal hacks as well. I expect they’re also popular among other readers of this site.

  8. I have a little bit of 0% interest credit card debt that will be paid off in 2 months, but usually I pay my credit card bills in full every month so not too much of a worry there. I’d say my biggest money concern continues to be medical expenses. With both my wife and I suffering from chronic illness, that is a huge chunk of our household budget.

    • Donna Freedman

      My daughter and her husband are also chronically ill. In additional to medical expenses comes the need to outsource certain things one can no longer do, such as yard work or deep cleaning.

      If you haven’t already checked out her blog, may I recommend it?

      And her book, “Frugality For Depressives: Money-Saving Tips For Those Who Find Life A Little Harder,” has workarounds that can help those who experience illnesses other than depression:

  9. RoInSanDiego

    My biggest concern is whether my husband will have a recurrence of cancer before his earliest retirement age in 6 years. We are moderatly frugal. I would like to retire in 3 years but may wait to retire when he does.
    We have saved enough money.

  10. I was single until I was 54. One of the men I dated seemed promising until he revealed 25k in CC debt. What was most frightening was that he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) cite how he had amassed such a number and that he seemed unconcerned about it. I hit the road after I realized he had no savings and he ignored my advice against the purchase of a particular property with virtually no down payment. Two years later, he lost his job and then the one bedroom condo. Sad.
    Thankfully, I listened to my gut. I eventually met and married (Woo-hoo!) someone whose fiscal habits are more closely aligned with mine. Together, we are on solid financial footing and are happily and gratefully among the 19%. Now I’m happy every single day that I waited until the right one came along.

    • Donna Freedman

      Financial compatibility is huge. You can’t live on love alone, especially if the other person is undermining the bottom line — or if both of you are, without a thought for tomorrow.

      I’m glad you found the right one, too.

  11. Excellent information!!! My biggest money worry is figuring out if how long I want/need to work. I am hoping to reach FIRE in the next couple of years but I am getting really burned out from work and would like to potentially accelerate my retirement date. With that said I’m not sure if it makes sense for me to suck it up or just change careers and work for less but be happier in the workforce. Anyway that’s my biggest dilemma right now. Thanks for sharing.

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