Anyone can end up with credit card debt. The important thing is what you do with it. NerdWallet's Credit Cards content team talks about how they've dealt with their own credit card debt, the mistakes they've made in both running up and paying down debt, and what, if anything, they'd do differently.
Robin Saks Frankel, writer
Gregory Karp, writer
Melissa Lambarena, writer
Kimberly Palmer, writer
Sara Rathner, writer
Paul Soucy, editor
Claire Tsosie, writer
Kenley Young, editor
Credit card debt piles up in countless ways
KENLEY YOUNG: Difficult to admit, but I’ve struggled with credit card debt for years. Got my first card in 2004, three years after I graduated from college. The purchase that opened the debt floodgates? My beloved Martin guitar. I gently weep when I think of how cavalier I was about the transaction. It was an $1,800 purchase, which — as an entry-level newspaper copy editor — I definitely did not have the money for. But I was also a gigging musician, and Martins are the cream of the crop. So I broke out the card and charged it.
“One reason I was so blasé ... is that, in other areas of my life, my balance sheet was great.”
That card offered no rewards, and its 0% intro APR offer had expired. Dumb decision. Technically I’m still paying it off, because the big expenses just piled up after that. I bought a house the next year, an engagement ring three years later, financed a cross-country move to California, had two kids. All along, I had a dog, with vet bills that soared when she became seriously ill. We lived in an L.A. apartment we couldn’t afford. (And this is to say nothing of my wife’s credit card debt.)
I think one reason I was so blasé about taking on credit card debt right out of college is that, in other areas of my life, my balance sheet was great. I didn't have any student loan debt, my car was used and paid off, I didn't own a home, etc.
CLAIRE TSOSIE: The one time I did take on credit card debt was to pay for my wedding. Although my husband and I tried to keep costs down, it was still quite expensive — partly because it was in Montana, and we had to pay for travel and lodging, since we live in California. The total cost came out to roughly $6,000. I put some of those costs on a travel card to earn the sign-up bonus, and paid that in full, then put the rest on a newly opened cash-back card (which came with a modest sign-up bonus and offered an introductory 0% APR period for 15 months) to give my checking account a little time to recover from that pummeling.
KIMBERLY PALMER: I recently took on credit card debt for the first time. We had to buy new windows for our house, and the cost was massive, around $15,000. I applied for a card with an 18-month 0% APR period and set up automatic payments each month so we would be sure to pay off the balance before that introductory rate expired and the interest rate skyrocketed. We are close to paying it off now, and even though paying such a large chunk each month is a huge drag, it seems like the best option, since we really needed those windows.
PAUL SOUCY: There were multiple times where I paid for something over time with a credit card that I could have just paid for upfront but didn’t because I didn’t want to part with “all that money” at once. Interest is such a hidden cost. I was reluctant to spend $1,500 in one big chunk but then paid something like $200 a month for nine months. If my choice had been to pay $1,500 upfront or see a $1,800 charge on my credit card, I probably would have done things differently.
MELISSA LAMBARENA: After the recession, I slowly began putting purchases on my credit card until I ended up with $5,000 in debt. There were a lot of factors that contributed to the debt. At the time, there weren’t many jobs available. I even experienced a few layoffs. The economy combined with unemployment and my financial decisions before NerdWallet weren’t the best fit. I also had student loans to worry about, but that’s a story for another time.
“I chose to stay put and seek out jobs, and I relied on plastic while I did. ”
I could have moved back home with my parents as most of my friends chose to do, but I would have missed out on opportunities in my field. I chose to stay put and seek out jobs, and I relied on plastic while I did. I had a small emergency fund, but not enough to cover all purchases. I would sometimes put essentials on the card such as groceries or gas, depending on how tough that month was. The purchases that really added up, though, were those that I considered “investments.”
I was offered a freelancing gig doing videos, which required a new camera. It was the only job offer available close to my field, so I couldn’t let it slip away. At the time, I would have benefited from a 0% APR credit card for purchases that allowed room to breathe on interest payments. Instead, I put the purchase on my card and added to my growing pile of debt. A few months later, my computer started giving me trouble. I needed it to edit the videos and it was beyond repair. That was another purchase I put on the card. Expenses kept piling up. Once I started a full-time job, I needed professional attire for the office. I also seemed to be a magnet for parking tickets in Los Angeles (some, I swear, were not my fault). The list of purchases that contributed to the debt goes on.
ROBIN SAKS FRANKEL: Until a few years ago, my husband and I didn’t carry any credit card debt. Then my husband, who works on 100% commission, had two less-than-stellar earning years in a row, and it changed everything for us. We ended up having to put our kids’ tuition for their school on one of our credit cards, and we weren’t able to make more than the minimum payments. This caused our balances to balloon to the point where we maxed out our card.
To say this was stressful would be an understatement.
Stress can provide powerful motivation
GREGORY KARP: My wife brought some credit card debt into the marriage, a few thousand dollars. I had none, but not because I was some money mastermind. It’s because I was embarrassed when my grandfather, with whom I was very close, bailed me out of credit card debt. The debt started in college, when I ran up several thousand dollars on credit cards, buying nothing important (I recall pricey bookshelf speakers and tinted windows for my car). I was living with my grandparents temporarily when I got my first job. When my grandfather learned I had card debt, he insisted on giving me a loan to pay it off — to save on interest.
“Money knowledge is important, but fear and embarrassment have their own power. ”
I took the loan but was so mortified that I turned over almost all of my paycheck to him and repaid the entire amount in a few months.
After getting married, my wife was onboard with not carrying balances anymore. We paid off her cards quickly and haven’t paid interest since. Money knowledge is important — I wish there was a NerdWallet back then — but fear and embarrassment have their own power.
TSOSIE: Initially, I had planned to pay off the balance for my wedding over a longer period of time. In theory, it made sense. But I really hated the feeling of owing money. I remember feeling stressed out and checking my account all the time to make sure the 0% APR offer was really “working.” And I spent a stupid amount of time worrying about my automatic payments not going out on time and voiding my 0% APR period. I felt like I was always looking over my shoulder and trying to figure out how I was going to get screwed over. Before I carried credit card debt, I never really felt that way about money. I ended up paying off the balance in three months.
SARA RATHNER: I thankfully never had credit card debt but did graduate from college with student loans. One year before tax time I got a note that told me how much I paid in interest over the year, and that was the kick in the behind I needed to throw any extra money I could cough up each month at my loan payments because I was upset when I saw all those monthly interest payments added together.
LAMBARENA: I made the required payments on time, but I couldn’t seem to dig my way out of debt. The double-digit interest kept adding up. It felt hopeless, and I knew I would have to make some sacrifices to pay it down.
Sacrifices large and small rein in debt
FRANKEL: Over the past three years we’ve made a lot of lifestyle changes to help tackle this debt, the biggest one being my returning full time to the workforce. We have also shifted some of the debt to cards with 0% balance transfer offers and are diligent about making more than the minimum payments on the cards each month. We’ve cut back a great deal on extraneous spending to do this, although we still try to budget for occasional family adventures. And, thankfully, we are back on track to where the looming specter of unmanageable credit card payments and mounting interest charges are just about in our rearview mirror.
YOUNG: It’s only been in the past 2 1/2 years (not coincidentally, around the same time I started at NerdWallet) that I’ve gotten diligent about paying off my credit card debt. And I’ve thrown everything at it. I mean everything. By the time we left California in April 2016, I had around $20,000 in credit card debt. I’m down to around $11,800. Having moved it to balance-transfer cards with 0% interest promotions, I’m not paying a dime of interest on it, and my credit score is back to excellent.
“I buy for the kids, but I haven’t bought so much as a shirt for myself in years. ”
I started small, selling belongings on Craigslist. Then we moved to South Carolina (much cheaper cost of living) and crashed at my in-laws’ house for eight months. No rent payments = huge help. Then I opened two balance-transfer cards. Paid off the first, still working on the second. I’m still gigging, too — $150 to $200 per clip. I’ve linked rounding apps to my bank account so that my payments toward debt are automated and I don’t even think about it. I’ve renegotiated my cable bill, my auto loan, my car insurance bill, my cell phone bill, anything I can find without cutting into bone. I don’t shop for anything beyond necessities. I buy for the kids, but I haven’t bought so much as a shirt for myself in years.
LAMBARENA: I decided to move out of my apartment, and I got some roommates. I also took on a side hustle. Over several months, I put a dent in my credit card debt, and later, my student loan debt. I then prioritized my emergency fund so that I would never have to go through that experience again.
PALMER: I'm curious what your side hustle was, Melissa.
LAMBARENA: They varied. For a while I was helping local businesses get online (websites and social media). I was also doing some dog sitting.
» MORE: Got debt? Get a side hustle
PALMER: I had an Etsy shop a few years ago that helped me pay for extra expenses. ... I created digital money planners called "Palmer's Planners."
YOUNG: This is also pretty standard advice, but I'd also recommend side gigs (literal gigs for me) and other supplemental income streams — whether that's to keep you out of debt, build up an emergency fund, or pay down existing debt. And it doesn't even have to be "work," per se. It can just be anything that earns you "found" money that you haven't otherwise budgeted normally. Side gigs, sure, but also joining a cash-back shopping site or using your card's bonus mall; recycling and getting the can- and bottle-deposit money back; selling stuff you don't need on Craigslist; lowering your 401(k) contribution (temporarily); refinancing or renegotiating any monthly bills you can; sticking birthday money or tax refunds in a "pay off debt" envelope, etc. All of which I have done, and some of which I still do.
RATHNER: The "found money" thing can really add up. Obviously the biggest way to save is to cut your largest expenses (housing, food, transportation), but finding $10 in savings here and $5 there is all money to put toward a credit card payment.
“Sometimes the sensible advice that makes sense to say is very difficult to execute.”
FRANKEL: I have to say, based on my experience where we had scary debt, we own our house so there was no easy way to save on housing (we listed our house but only got lowball offers that would have been poor choices), no way for me to get to my former job except drive, and we cook and eat at home most of the time because we have kids. Plus side gig opportunities are limited. Sometimes the sensible advice that makes sense to say is very difficult to execute, even if you’re ready, willing and able.
YOUNG: We were in a similar situation in L.A., at least in terms of the housing portion of our budget. The sky-high rent was a fixed cost; no amount of can-recycling or rock gigs was going to make much of a dent. We had to take a hard look at things and, ultimately, make the difficult decision to leave Southern California entirely. It helped that we were moving back to family and old friends, and that we knew our kids would love being near grandparents. But I'll always second-guess whether it was the right call.
Monetarily, at that point in our lives, it was. Longer-term, I don't know.
FRANKEL: I’d move back to Manhattan in a second if it was affordable!
Repaying debt vs. saving for emergencies
KARP: You hear a lot about people with both savings and credit card debt. Even if your logical self knows you’re paying interest for nothing, the security of having available cash has an emotional lure. I have a similar inner voice that I have to squash now that we pay cash for cars — a position that took a long while to get to. (We buy only used cars.) Using up a pile of cash in a fell swoop feels risky. But I remind myself there’s no reason to pay auto-loan interest.
TSOSIE: I totally see what Paul and Greg are saying about just getting over the mental hurdle of digging into your savings to pay down debt. But I think it's also totally reasonable to want a solid emergency fund, and it's smart to be really selective about which situations you use that money for, because it can save you from future credit card debt.
“That emergency fund bailed me out of so many dumb situations that could have snowballed into debt. ”
One reason I was able to avoid credit card debt was that I started working as a teenager, and by the time I went to college, I had about $6,000 saved up. That emergency fund bailed me out of so many dumb situations that could have snowballed into debt if I hadn't had it. Just an example — once when I was 22, I got my car towed. It was $400! If I hadn't had an emergency fund, I can see how that situation could have led to taking on credit card debt and getting into a cycle of never paying down my balance, because at the time, I was making like $9 an hour.
I think it's a balancing act. Personally, if paying down my credit card bill in full meant that I had like $20 left in the bank total, I definitely wouldn't do it — just because there's a risk of overdrawing the account and having that unfold into some other bad situation. A 0% APR card would really be helpful in that situation, I think. But if I felt confident that I could still cover my basic expenses and pay my credit card bill in full, I would definitely do that.
YOUNG: That's similar to how I feel, Claire. One of the things I was able to do when we moved to South Carolina was to finally get an emergency fund going. Some months that fund is more flush than others, but the point is that I have one at all. There are times — after I've saved up a good bit — where I think, "Maybe I should just throw most of this right at my debt before we use it on other stuff." But ... there's always other stuff that comes up.
KARP: I’m all for emergency funds. But I think about it like: Why not deplete my cash fund to pay a credit card? If an unexpected expense comes up, I put it on the credit card, and I’m back to where I was. No worse off. But if no expense comes up, I’ve saved on credit card interest — and cleared room on the card, which can help my credit utilization and credit score.
TSOSIE: I see what you're saying — sometimes, it makes sense. But I think making a move like that also means taking a calculated risk that you're not going to need that cash in the next month or so. And there are reasons some people might need cash rather than credit. For example, if you lose your job or your hours are cut, you might need that cash to pay your rent.
“When you have cash, you're a little more in charge of your own destiny. ”
It definitely depends on the situation, and people need to ask themselves whether they're in a good position to take on some risk. If they have an amazing credit score and feel really confident they'll have a paycheck of a certain size coming, the math can work out. But if they're in a more financially precarious place, I think cash is definitely more valuable. When you have cash, you're a little more in charge of your own destiny. When you're carrying credit card debt, you're kind of at the mercy of your issuer, and you have to hope that interest rates don't rise, promotions aren't voided or your limit isn't lowered because of a change in your borrowing behavior or credit score.
A lesson: Use the right card, before or after
SOUCY: When I got married, my then-wife was carrying thousands of dollars in credit card debt from her days as a grad student. We were diligent in paying it down, but we left it on the same card, which she continued to use for purchases. Leaving the debt where it was hurt us in two ways. First, we were paying double-digit interest on the debt. Second, since we were carrying a balance from month to month, we got no grace period, so interest began accruing on our purchases immediately. I haven’t gone back to see what the interest cost us, but I would assume it was well over $1,000.
“If I were in the same situation today, I would have just paid off the debt out of savings.”
If I were in the same situation today, I would have just paid off the debt out of savings. The 15% or whatever we were paying in interest on the credit card debt was way more than we were getting on our savings, which couldn’t have been more than maybe 1.5%. But I didn’t want to do that.
Barring that, I’d at least look into transferring the debt to a 0% card. If we could’ve gotten a card with a year or so of 0% and no balance transfer fee, that would have been the way to go. But I didn’t work at NerdWallet back then, and I didn’t know such a thing existed.
PALMER: The only thing I wish we had done differently is shop around for a credit card instead of just taking the one offered by the window company. Like Kenley pointed out, we probably could have found a card that offered not just a 0% introductory APR, but also cash back rewards. The card we are using has no rewards. I'm mad at myself that I didn't think about that.
» MORE: Find a 0% credit card
FRANKEL: If I had to go back in time with what I know now, I would have gotten a 0% card almost from the start for that tuition. The amount we ended up paying in interest is painful, and it’s easy to see how people so quickly find themselves in quicksand with their debts.
“Now ... we have a much more somber view of how quickly things can change.”
I know it’s easy to read this and say, “Well, why not just take them out of private school and send them to public?” And the answer is twofold: We send our kids to a Jewish day school, and even before we had kids we agreed that this was something that was super important to us. Our kids were and are thriving and happy and love their school. We didn’t anticipate my husband’s salary to stay where it was forever, although there was no crystal ball for when it would change. So, as we waited for what we thought would be only a few months of lower income, it just became easier and easier to keep the tuition charges on the credit card until it became unsustainable. Now we pay tuition directly out of our bank account so we aren’t paying interest on top of tuition, and we have a much more somber view of how quickly things can change.
LAMBARENA: Looking back, I may have been able to pay down the debt with a balance transfer credit card. It would have been great to know that option existed.
Moving forward with no debt, or less of it
KARP: The good news is once you pay off balances for a while and make it a habit — and build a cash fund for emergency expenses so they don’t land on a revolving balance — it’s kind of easy not to fall back into credit card debt. It’s just not a part of your life anymore.
YOUNG: I’m earning passive rewards income on credit cards I use for necessary spending. I carry no balance on any of those cards, and much of my cash back goes right back to paying down debt. My goal is to be credit-card-debt-free when I turn 40. That’s less than a year away. Not sure I’ll make it, but I should be close.
LAMBARENA: This experience taught me a lot of lessons. I began prioritizing an emergency fund and I built an excellent credit score by keeping up with payments and paying everything off. It’s easy to lose hope and give up on your credit score when you’re knee-deep in credit card and student loan debt.
I’ve seen many of my friends discouraged because they are decades away from paying off their debts. I tell them to give their future selves a chance by building a good credit score in case an opportunity comes along to pay off debt. I share with them that my excellent credit now qualifies me for many opportunities such as rewards credit cards. Instead of paying interest, I now rake in hundreds of dollars in cash back.