Nearly 25 percent of Americans have more credit card debt than savings

Maurie Backman

Americans seem to have a funny relationship with credit card debt and savings -- namely, they tend to rack up a ton of the former, and not enough of the latter. In fact, only 52% of Americans have emergency savings that exceed their outstanding credit card balances. This data comes from a 2017 Bankrate study, which also found that 24% of U.S. adults actually have more credit card debt than money in the bank.

Of course, not all Americans are deeply indebted -- a good 17% claim they don't owe a dime on their credit cards. Unfortunately, these same folks also have no savings to show for.

10 US states with the most debt:

If your debt level is higher than it should be while your savings seem to have fallen by the wayside, it's time to change your ways immediately. Otherwise, you risk racking up even more debt, which will only impede your savings efforts and leave you financially vulnerable.

Where Americans stand on savings

The more money you've saved, the less desperate you'll be when an unplanned expense hits you, and therefore the less likely you'll be to rack up costly credit card debt. But most Americans are way behind on savings. An estimated 57% have less than $1,000 in the bank, while 39% have no savings at all. Meanwhile, the average U.S. household owes $7,136 in credit card debt. And given the aforementioned numbers, that's not surprising.

Breaking the debt cycle and boosting savings

Clearly, having more debt than savings is not a position you want to be in. The solution? Work on improving both situations simultaneously. And the best way to start? Create a budget. Without one, you'll have no idea where your money is going and where you might manage to cut corners, but if you map out your various expenses, you'll see where you're overspending and where there's room for improvement.

Once you have that budget in place, you'll need to decide which expenses you're willing to slash. You might go big and downsize your living space, thus freeing up several hundred dollars in one fell swoop. Or, you might decide to cut back on takeout meals, clothing, and leisure, the sum of which might total what you'd save by lowering your rent. The choice is yours, but know that you'll most likely need to cut something from your budget if you want to improve your savings level and have a shot at paying off debt.

Furthermore, if your financial situation is pretty dire, you should really consider a side gig to generate extra income. Of the 44 million Americans who currently hold down a second job, more than one-third bring home upward of $500 a month as a result. If you're looking at a $0 savings balance, that's a good way to add a cool $6,000 to your savings account in just a year's time, and without having to slash a ton of expenses in the process.

Of course, once you start spending less and earning more, you'll need to decide whether to pay down your debt first, or add to your savings. Now you may be inclined to go with the former, especially since credit card interest can easily surpass the 20% mark, while most savings accounts today pay 1% if you're lucky. But while focusing on your debt might seem to make the most sense, you should actually prioritize your emergency savings, and only start chipping away at your debt once you have a solid cushion.

Why this approach? It's simple. If you don't have any money in the bank and you encounter another financial emergency, you'll get yourself deeper into debt. Having that money on hand will help you avoid adding to your balance, thus making it even more difficult to pay off. Besides, there are situations in life where you just plain need access to cash. Say your car is towed and you need $200 to get it back, but the tow company only takes cash. At that point, whipping out your credit card isn't an option, and without a little money in the bank, you could run into serious trouble.

Though it's not surprising to learn that so many Americans have debt that exceeds their savings, it's a troublesome statistic nonetheless. And if you're part of it, it's time to turn that ratio around -- immediately.

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