It’s Nowhere You Want to Be

Americans’ credit card debt just surpassed $1 trillion.

America, you have a debt problem. Okay, yes, that’s old news. What’s new is a milestone reached just about a month ago: Americans’ credit card balances reached a record of more than $1 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Already, and somewhat obviously, credit cards represent the most prevalent type of household debt, and it’s growing in depth and width: In addition to the record outstanding balance, more than two-thirds of Americans now own credit cards. That’s up from 59 percent roughly a decade earlier, according to the New York Fed.

Combined with well-publicized balances like student loans, overall household debt in the U.S. has gone up by $2.9 trillion since the end of 2019.

We asked around about what’s going on and what you can do. Here’s what we got.

The end of pandemic cover is sending people to credit cards

“The U.S. government’s pandemic response was to mail enormous checks to households, which did a lot to repair household balance sheets (at the expense of making the government’s balance sheet worse). But those pandemic checks didn’t last forever, and the current ballooning of credit card debt is kind of a return to the pre-pandemic trendline.”

— James Choi, professor of finance at Yale University, in an email exchange with Common Good

However useful they seem, credit cards work for credit card companies

“I hear all of the reasons people think credit cards deserve a permanent home in their wallets, but the data is clear that we spend more when we swipe. And those ‘reward programs’ and ‘free’ airline miles? The credit card companies are trapping people into an endless cycle of debt. That’s why they can afford all of that relentless marketing and why high-priced celebrities ask us, ‘What’s in your wallet?’

“We tell ourselves we’ll pay off the balance in full every month, get our points and miles, and beat the system. The reality is 48 percent are not able to pay it off every month.”

— George Kamel, a speaker with Ramsey Solutions and co-host of the Smart Money Happy Hour podcast, in an email to Common Good

To get out of credit card debt, stop going into credit card debt

“The first thing is to stop the problem, and that would be to get rid of the credit cards and start paying cash. It’s been proven you spend 20 percent to 30 percent less if you write a check or use cash than when you use a credit card. It’s easier to pull a credit card out if I go to play golf or go out to eat at a restaurant than to hand them a couple 20s.”

— Russ Crosson, chief mission officer and a senior partner at Ron Blue Trust, in a September phone call

Economists agree with personal finance gurus: Credit card debt is a problem

“Economists view debt as reasonable to take on if your current income is low relative to your future income. The idea is that it’s ideal to maintain a fairly consistent amount of spending over time, rather than being deprived one year and overindulged in another year. The way to do that if your income is temporarily low is to borrow against your future income. But the higher the interest rate the debt charges, the more reluctant you should be to borrow. Credit card interest rates are very high, and it’s hard to get an economic model to recommend the high level of credit card borrowing we see in the U.S. economy.”

— Choi

Two strategies for finding more cash to pay off debt: Retirement contributions and home equity

“Many people are funding their retirement plans while they’re going into debt,” said Crosson. That’s one place people can find money: Don’t take it out of your retirement plan, but consider stopping funding it for a period of time until you get this problem fixed.

“Getting a home equity line might also be a way to get rid of all the debt quickly and then whittle away on that home equity line at a lower interest rate and amortize that.”

— Crosson

Nothing will replace the work

“But there’s no magic bullet here. You’ve just got to stop the problem. Start with your highest interest rate balance and tackle that one first. Whether you have $1,200 in debt or $40,000, you didn’t get in debt overnight, and you won’t get out overnight.”

— Crosson

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