Crushing debt: Credit card trouble; it's easy to get hooked
illustration by DAVID W. ROWE/TIMES NEWS
Jim Thorpe National Bank official Frank Wolman has seen people walk into his office struggling under the weight of as much as $50,000 in credit card debt, seeking consolidation loans to help them pay what they owe.
"I've seen a lot of people in credit card trouble," says Wolman, who is Senior Vice-president-Senior Loan Officer. "People get cards, do impulse buying 'I've got the card, I want this' they get caught up and then don't have the cash flow to pay, and end up making minimum payments."
People with crushing credit card debt are not alone: Americans owed $862 billion as of January of this year. That's up from $1.3 billion in January 1968, the first year the Federal Reserve began tracking revolving debt.
But that's sharply down from its $1 trillion peak in September 2008, says Daniel Ray, editor in chief at CreditCards.com.
"Credit card debt soared in the years leading up to the recession, then fell sharply when the recession hit," he says. "Some of the sharp fall was due to the supply of credit cards falling sharply. Credit card issuers, seeing consumer delinquencies skyrocket, responded by tightening up on the number of cards they issued, and the amount of debt they'd let each person carry. They reassessed who was a risky customer, and cut back on issuing credit like mad. They also cut off credit entirely to people who went into serious default.
"While consumers who couldn't pay their bills had cards taken away, many of those who could pay their bills pulled in their horns and charged less," Ray says.
"Now, the amount of credit card borrowing is bouncing around up one month, down the next as both lenders and borrowers get used to the new post-recession landscape. In the most recent month for which we have good data, April 2012, card balances fell by 4.8 percent to $862 billion," he says.
Digging a financial hole
Wolman, in the banking business for 40 years, cautions credit card users to stop and think before flashing that plastic.
"You can't use them for fast food or impulse buying," he says.
It's easy to get hooked.
"You get these offers in the mail every day," Wolman says. "It's extraordinary the trouble people get themselves into. They borrow, they pay it back, they borrow, they pay it back."
People often "get drawn in by zero percent interest offers. They think, I'll pay that off in 12 months. But before you know it, the zero percent offer ends, and all of a sudden they've got a 15 percent interest rate. Instead of owing $10,000, now they owe $15,000," he says.
Struggling to make payments, people end up living paycheck to paycheck.
People may use credit cards with the best intention, but it's easy to lose track of spending, especially if they accrue balances on multiple cards.
"You miss a payment, and the interest rate could really shoot up," Wolman says. "And they can be substantial. That knocks people out of the park when that happens their payments could double or triple."
Desperate, credit card holders end up borrowing from one credit card to pay another, often using cash advances, which carry high interest rates.
It's no surprise, Wolman says, that most of the bankruptcies he see are triggered by credit card debt.
"The biggest thing and this is easy to say but hard to do is to be disciplined in getting them, using them, and paying them off in a reasonable amount of time," Wolman says.
He cautions against using credit cards for big buys, such as cars or furniture. It makes more economic sense to take out fixed-term bank loans for those long-range purchases.
If people find themselves beginning to sink, the obvious and immediate answer is to stop spending.
They should also, if able, consolidate by using balance transfers. Wolman also advises people to make more than the min. payments, or get a bank loan. But again, you have to have the discipline - don't use the cards.
One option is to take out a bank consolidation loan.
However, Wolman warns, banks typically only offer one consolidation loan for those with collateral. People who return for consolidation loans time and time again are not learning from their mistakes.
Another option is to turn to a credit counseling agency. But first make sure it is reputable. The U.S. Department of Justice lists approved credit counseling agencies at http: //www.justice.gov/ust/.
The National Foundation for Credit Counseling advises people to look for an agency that is: Affiliated with a national organization; is accredited by a third, independent party; is a nonprofit community organization; has an unpaid board of directors who are neither friends nor family members. NFCC also recommends agencies that offer a wide range of services, is upfront about fees, and offers Certified Consumer Credit Counselors.
The organization also suggests finding out what the minimum amount of debt required for services, whether the agency will work with all of the person's creditors, and whether it will provide educational workshops or classes.
NFCC advises people to check with their state's Better Business Bureau and attorney general to make sure the agency has no unresolved complaints.
Wolman recommends that credit card customers who find themselves struggling contact the card companies directly.
"Explain your situation. Sometimes they will work with the customer to help them pay their bills. A lot of companies will do that if you ask," he says. "It'll take a little bit of work. You didn't get into debt overnight, and you're not going to get out of it overnight."
Will we learn?
CreditCard.com's Ray believes people have learned, and will be more cautious in the future maybe.
"Consumers are more hesitant about borrowing, and lenders are more hesitant about lending, than they were before the recession. Both borrowers and lenders are slowly peeking their heads out of their shells, looking around at the recession-flattened landscape, and treading carefully," he says.
"I think this recession has been a mind-scarring event. Much as the children of the (Great) Depression hesitated all their lives to take on debt, so today's generation of younger people will be less eager to adopt the 'buy now, pay later' attitude many of their parents have.
"You can see it in the studies of millennials' payment behavior they are the heaviest users of debit cards, which can't spend what they don't have. They're also saddled with more student debt than their parents, a drain on their budgets that also makes free spending on credit cards less likely," Ray says. "But I'm not absolutely certain this mindset will take hold permanently. Unlike their parents, today's new borrowers are also bombarded 24/7 with marketing messages calling on them to borrow and live for today."