Last week, National Public Radio’s “On Point” program highlighted credit cards, consumers, and a nation in debt. I was honored to be a guest on the show.
Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren, an expert on the credit card industry, was the main guest, however, and she had a lot of great things to say. (I admire Warren and her work, including the personal finance book, All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan.) After hearing my story, she made an interesting distinction:
There are three kinds of people who carry credit card debt. One is like J.D. He makes a lot of money, but he just spends more than he makes, and I understand that. But there are two other groups.
There are a lot of people who spend more than they make, but the difference is somewhere else on the scale. These are people who really can’t make it to the end of the month on $40,000 a year. They can’t support the kids, they can’t pay their medical bills, and those are a lot of people who are carrying credit card debt…Credit card debt — a lot of it — is about medical debt, about putting groceries on the table.
And there’s kind of a group in between those two. Those are the people who when they were young and stupid, were young and stupid. They…ran up some credit card debt…said, “Boy, I’m in trouble here.” But the problem now becomes the card itself.
I’m not convinced that Americans are in credit card trouble because they’ve turned to plastic to make it to the end of the month. I believe that most Americans get into debt because of consumer spending and bad habits. If you practice smart personal finance from the start, you minimize the chances that any one disaster can leave you in financial ruin.
I suspect — though I don’t have numbers to prove this — that unexpected emergencies are often simply the straw the breaks the camel’s back, but that the camel was already bearing the a heavy load of consumerism to begin with.
A recent New York Times article about Americans in debt profiled Diane McLeod, who fueled her lifestyle with credit cards and other debt. This worked fine until “back-to-back medical emergencies helped push her over the edge”. From my experience, McLeod’s story is more typical than that of a family turning to credit as a last resort.
But maybe I’m wrong.
If you currently carry credit card debt (or have done so in the past), what’s your story? What got you started? How did the debt get out of control? What’s your plan for paying it off?
How did you get into debt?
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