During a pandemic that has caused significant hardships for many people, it's not surprising—albeit upsetting—to learn that 42% of Americans feel that their financial situation has gotten worse in the last year; and of that group, 45% have taken on debt because of it.
This means that the previous reports that 37% of Americans carry credit card debt will likely increase.
Most people with credit card debt are anxious to get rid of it—but that is a daunting task to be sure. So we sat down with Brittney Castro, CFP, AAMS, CRPC, the in-house CFP for Mint and founder and CEO of Financially Wise Inc. to talk about credit card debt.
Here's what she said about how families can start to make a dent when they have more credit card debt than they would like to have.
Money is such a stressful thing. Do you have any comforting words for people who may find themselves in a situation where they have credit card debt?
Castro: The main thing with credit card debt is to process it in a healthy way. There are a few stages. There's the mental and emotional stage of credit card debt, which you're referring to.
First, acknowledge the debt you have and see it in black and white. And that could be simple: write it all out with a pen and paper. What is the debt? How much do you owe? What's the interest rate? What's the minimum? And when you do that, you might feel things, right? You might feel shame, guilt, overwhelm, stress or anxiety, and it's healthy to process those emotions—but don't let them weigh you down and feel like you're a horrible person, or that it is connected to your self-worth or you're the only person who has credit card debt in America.
We tend to focus on criticizing and feeling bad versus thinking, "Okay, here's what it is. Maybe it's not comfortable to look at this, but now I see it in black and white." And that's such a huge step. Honestly, [writing it out] is the biggest step, just to see it and then say, "Okay, now what kind of game plan can I put in place?"
Consider why you that debt? Was it a medical emergency, or were you overspending? Really, just what was it from? It's not like you need to feel bad. You just need to be honest. Am I overspending and that's what it's from, or was it a really difficult year and I didn't have income for a while and that's why I have debt or was there a medical emergency and I acquired debt? When you identify the reason, then you could get clear on the game plan that will stick for the long term.
And it might not be one and done emotionally, like "Oh, I feel guilty and now I'm not guilty anymore." You might have to keep acknowledging those feelings when you're working on a debt game plan and just keep reminding yourself, "No. I'm starting a new path. Here's the thing I want to remind myself about." All of those positive affirmations or mindsets to switch it, because it might not switch overnight.
Would you say then that the first step is doing this pen and paperwork of figuring out exactly what the debt is?
Castro: Exactly. That's the first step. And it sounds pretty basic and easy, but I think a lot of people avoid it because they're so scared, and it could just be one activity for that week. "Today, I'm just going to look at all the accounts, write down all these numbers, and then that's it, and then I'm going to feel good that that was what I did today. Next week, I'll start to look at it and process what it was, how did I get here?"
Take it step-by-step, and I think that's where Mint is so great because a lot of the messaging this year is about little wins. It's these little steps, so even if it's just taking that first step and identifying the debt, great. If you're using the Mint app, you can see all of that in your accounts, the net worth section, so that could be helpful too.
Do you have a preferred method for getting all of that information into one spot?
Castro: Well, if you use a Mint app and you link your accounts, you'll be able to see it. But also I think what you should do is pull up any app like that and write it down with pen and paper. Something about writing it down makes it more real and also a little bit more simple. I think sometimes we like to over-complicate. No, just literally write it down. What is it? How much is it? And then look at it from an objective point of view.
Okay. So we've got the Mint app going, we've written it down, we've processed our initial emotional response. What is the next step?
Castro: Well, the next step would then be to set up some sort of automatic payment plan to start tackling the debt with the highest interest rates. So look at all those that you just wrote down and decide which one has the highest interest rate and start making additional debt payments.
Even putting $10 more a month; it's progress, right? So it's all about making progress and taking these baby steps, and then doing it over and over. That's the next step: To organize the debt, start with the one with the highest interest rate, and make more payments toward that one. Even if it's something small that you think is not going to be a big deal, like $10 a month more, do it.
What are we looking at when we get a credit card bill?
Castro: Assuming you're carrying a balance, there's going to be a minimum payment. Let's say you have a balance on your credit card of $3,000 and they calculate the minimum monthly payment as $59, and that is the debt you've identified as the highest interest rate debt. Well, let's say you can add another $50 per month on top of the minimum. So now your total payment is $109. By adding $50 more per month, you're going to pay that debt off faster. You want to pay this one off fast because it's the one with the highest interest rate, meaning that's the one that's causing a lot of pain in your financial life.
How can somebody figure out how much they can afford to pay towards their credit card debt every month?
Castro: That's just really looking at your budget. Ideally, you're trying to carve out 20% of your net income for goals, and debt reduction is one of your goals, so depending on how much debt you have and where you stand in relation to other goals, such as your cash cushion.
This is the art of money. That's so different for everybody, but you would just say, "Alright, I have $200 to work with every month. I'm going to put $100 toward my cash cushion and $100 toward making extra debt payments."
You want to balance it out because a lot of people end up putting $200 toward extra debt, but they have nothing going to building a cash cushion, so then the next time an emergency comes up, they have to use the same debt that they were working so hard to pay off.
So that's kind of the art of money; figuring out what is it that you have to work with and looking at your budget. You can use an app like Mint and calculate what you can cut out, like subscriptions, anything to free up more cash flow, and then divide it according to the priority of your financial goals.
That is so interesting. I think that it can be tempting if you have a lot of debt to look at that and think, "The faster I pay this off the better." But you're saying not at the expense of making sure that you're building an emergency fund so that you can protect yourself moving forward?
Castro: Yeah. And that's the art of money. It might mean it takes you a little bit longer to pay off the debt because you're balancing out against building cash, but that's what you need to do because people can stay in that debt cycle, and that's the cycle we're trying to beat.
For someone who is paying off debt slowly, how can people continue to stay motivated? Are there ways that we can build in mini-milestones or moments of celebration along the way?
Castro: Absolutely. I think that's a big part of Mint's message this year: Celebrate all of these little wins because really that's what it is anyway. It's all the little wins that add up to big wins over time.
Let's say, for example, your debt reduction strategy would be that every time you pay $500 off of the balance, you have a little celebration, whether it's just acknowledging it with your family and loved ones, or maybe you do something nice. Maybe treat yourself to a dinner that won't break the bank. Find a way you can celebrate the milestones, and whatever that means to you. Maybe it's every $500 that you pay off in balance. Maybe it's every $1,000, or maybe even smaller, every $100, just depending on how much immediate gratification you need to keep the momentum. Sometimes these game plans are going to take five years, 10 years, so you have to stay motivated.
In your work, do you see things creep up again and again that tend to be sneaky ways that people accumulate credit card debt?
Castro: I think that's just it. It could be little things you're over-spending on every month. Let's say you're over-spending $300 every month and you're using your credit card. Well, you do that for a year, that's $3,600 that you now owe. So it is the little things, and that's why doing weekly budget check-ins, which I call money dates, can be very helpful.
It's easy to go on Amazon and click—if your budget's $300 per month for Amazon, and then you look after week one and you're like, "Oh, I already spent $275. What the heck did I just buy?" Then you check yourself and say, "Alright, for the next three weeks, I can't buy anything because I've already hit my limit." So this is how we check ourselves.
And it's kind of fun in a way. It could be a fun game to make sure you're spending within your boundaries and using the Mint app and doing the categories and setting up your budget and seeing how you're doing against those categories helps. Look at that every week. Don't just set up your budget and then forget about it. Look at it and say, "Okay. I already spent my Amazon budget for the month, so anything more I want will stay in the cart until next month."
What are some other nuggets that you can share with people that you feel are maybe are misunderstood or not talked about enough?
Castro: Depending on the situation, you might be able to qualify for a balance transfer credit card, and you run the numbers, and it might work out to your benefit, even though there's a transfer fee to do something like that, to lock in a 0% APR. So that's a good strategy to look at if you have multiple credit card debts and a high-interest rate.
What are your thoughts on debt consolidation or loans to pay off debts?
Castro: It can be tricky because there are fees. Debt consolidation is kind of the worst-case scenario, because, one, it affects your credit score badly, and then two, there are fees wrapped up. Basically, a company comes in, kind of negotiates your credit cards, then they take over those lines, and then you just pay that company.
First, you have to find a reputable company. That's why I say start with the balance transfer. Maybe there are other personal loans you can get. We don't usually recommend this unless, but home equity loans sometimes take out the debt, then you can get a lower interest rate. The idea is to see if there are any lower interest rates you can get on these debts while you work on paying them off.
Anything else that you think is helpful for people to know?
Castro: Remember that you're not alone if you have a credit card debt. The reality is we live in a country that has leveraged debt. I don't want to become Debbie Downer, but we're pumping out trillions of dollars on the daily here just within this last year alone. So remember that you're not alone, and you can empower yourself to change your scenario because you don't have to live with the burden of debt. You could change the scenario, make more money, manage the money better. I know sometimes debt is acquired just from life. Medical bills, emergencies. Totally cool. Don't feel bad. Just focus on getting it paid off. And you really can do it, because sometimes I think people look at it the debt and they're like, "It's never going to go away," but it will if you focus on it.
Is this also a scenario in which someone could reach out to a professional like yourself to help figure out what that budget should be and to sort of get a plan in place?
Castro: Yeah, they can. Sometimes even just hiring a financial planner for one hour for a consulting session is worth it. So there are financial planners who work on an hourly basis, and you can go to websites like CFP Board and NAPFA to find those types of people. It's really valuable to have someone look at the numbers with you and get a game plan together, and it's worth it to say, "I need someone to help me do that."