5 Signs Your Credit Card Debt Is Out of Control
It's easy to let your credit card debt slip out of control. Despite your good intentions, one or two purchases over your budget can snowball from a small balance to a heap of debt. In fact, the average U.S. household carries more than $15,000 in credit card debt, according to NerdWallet's July analysis.
No matter how much credit card debt you have, it's important to face the problem and make a plan to pay it off for good. Here are five signs your credit card debt is out of control and tips for regaining mastery of your finances.
1. You're in denial. Neglecting your bills, dodging calls from unknown numbers and refraining from discussing finances with your significant other are clues you may be in denial about your debt.
But ignoring debt will only make it grow: Your accounts will continue to accrue interest and late payment penalties.
How to regain control: Look at your balance statements. List each of your debts, along with their due dates, minimum payments and interest rates. Pay the minimums on all of them.
Prioritize your debts, starting with the one with the highest interest rate, and use any additional funds you have to pay down the first debt on the list. Then, move onto the next one, and so on, until all of the balances drop to zero dollars.
2. Your repayment deadline is vague. If the date you'll be debt-free is "someday," that lack of clarity may be preventing you from getting your credit card debt under control.
A specific payoff date is important for several reasons: It forces you to devote your time and resources to meet a deadline. It also gives you a sense of when the stress of paying off debt will end. Knowing that your situation won't last forever could motivate you to resist the urge to spend.
How to regain control: Write down your take-home income and subtract necessary expenses, including your minimum debt payments. If you already have a small emergency fund, your leftover income can supplement debt payments. Use a debt payoff calculator to find out how long it will take you to get rid of your debt if you apply that extra payment to your balance. The result is your debt-free date.
If the date seems too far away, re-evaluate your income and expenses. By increasing your income or lowering your expenses, you can free up more cash and pay down your debt faster. Consider asking for a raise, freelancing on the side or selling unused belongings to bring in more money. Trim costs by canceling old subscriptions, finding cheaper entertainment or eating out less.
3. You jump from balance transfer to balance transfer. Credit card balance transfer offers with zero percent introductory APRs are a great way to alleviate your interest burden and help you pay off debt faster.
However, if you find yourself shifting your debt from one card to another without making any progress on reducing it, you may be stuck on the balance transfer hamster wheel: You make minimum payments -- which are largely negated by balance transfer fees -- and then transfer the remaining balance to a new card each time the introductory APR expires.
How to regain control: Moving a balance isn't the same as paying it off. If you have a balance transfer card with a limited zero percent interest rate, divide your balance by the number of months until the offer expires. That's your new monthly payment.
If you can't pay off the balance before the APR expires, make as much progress as you can. When the rate expires, transfer it to a zero percent card for the last time. Then make a plan to knock it out in the allotted time period without accruing interest.
4. You're sacrificing savings to pay off debt. You probably can't save much if your extra money goes toward credit card debt payments. But it's important to make room in your monthly budget to save, especially if you don't have an emergency fund to keep you from sliding back into debt if an unexpected expense arises.
How to regain control: Aim to save part of each paycheck, even if you have debt. If you don't have an emergency fund, set your first savings goal at $1,000 and make a plan to get there as quickly as you can. You can expedite the process by tightening your budget or making some money on the side and depositing it directly into your savings.
If you already have an emergency fund, start putting a small sum, such as $10, $20 or $50, in your general savings account each month. These deposits can help you reach longer-term savings goals or prevent you from falling back into debt if you exceed your budget.
5. You are constantly anxious about your debt. It's a red flag if thoughts about your debt are keeping you up at night or if your debt is affecting your professional or family life. Your debt shouldn't make you overwhelmingly stressed.
How to regain control: If you're anxious because you don't know how much you owe or what your terms are, refer to the steps for getting out of denial above. However, if your debt load is too big to pay off, you may have to find alternatives.
You may want to consider consolidation. Choose a registered debt consolidation company by looking for positive reviews on the Better Business Bureau site, or get recommendations from trusted loved ones who have consolidated their own debt with a reputable company.
Bankruptcy should be a last resort, but it's an option if you need it. Keep in mind that bankruptcy will stay on your credit report for seven to 10 years, and it's unlikely that you'll be able to pay back student loans in a bankruptcy.
By confronting the problem and taking these steps, you can lift both the mental and financial burdens of your credit card debt.
Erin El Issa is a former accountant and a staff writer for NerdWallet. She covers credit reporting and scoring, credit cards, consumer debt and other personal finance topics.