This is a guest post from former GRS staff writer Donna Freedman.

A whole lotta folks are way too comfortable with credit card debt, according to the “Generations Apart” study from Allianz Life. Nearly half of the Generation Xers and Baby Boomers surveyed consider plastic to be “a financial survival tool.”

Guys, guys, guys: The credit card is not a superhero. Sure, one swipe saves the day, but it’s only that day. What will you do on the day the bill arrives? Or on all the days you carry a balance?

Note: See also How to Choose a Credit Card for tips on finding the right credit card for you. Our partner site CardRatings.com also has articles to help you find the right card be it a cash back credit card or balance transfer credit card. Their Credit Card Comparison Table also allows you to easily search dozens of current credit card offers.

Oh, wait. That doesn’t bother some people, either:

  • 43 percent of those surveyed think that “lots of smart, hardworking people who are careful with spending [emphasis added] also have a lot of credit card debt.”
  • 20 percent of Gen Xers and 14 percent of Boomers think going into debt for day-to-day purchases is “just a fact of life.”

According to Allianz Life spokeswoman Katie Libbe:

Over the last three decades, there has been a collective shift in how people view debt — it’s now perceived as a normal part of one’s financial experience.”

Debt and retirement

The effect on retirement is troubling. About one in five Boomers and 23 percent of Gen Xers believe they can’t save until consumer debt is zeroed out. In terms of compound interest, that’s a missed opportunity for Gen Xers, some of whom are only 35 years old.

Debt might also mean long-delayed retirement: 27 percent of Gen Xers aren’t sure when/whether they’ll stop working and 11 percent of Boomers feel that way too. Problem is, we don’t always get to choose whether we retire. Illness or disability — our own or a partner’s — sometimes makes the decision for us, and a layoff in midlife sometimes results in de facto early retirement.

Debt triggers and workarounds

Not all credit card reliance has to do with hot dates or cool shoes. For example, 57 percent of personal bankruptcies are triggered by impossible-to-pay medical bills. Divorce and un- or underemployment may leave you with little choice but to charge groceries, utilities or other essentials.

The key word: “essentials.” Dining out is generally not essential. Neither is live entertainment or recreational shopping.

In fact, some essentials may not be essential. For example, suppose your car needs $400 worth of repairs or $150 worth of new tires and you haven’t got the scratch. If possible, stop driving until you have the cash.

Will that be easy or convenient? Probably not. Here’s what else isn’t easy or convenient (in the long run, anyway): Putting a $400 repair bill on a credit card without a clear idea how you’ll pay it off. So before you charge ahead, so to speak, use The First Rule of Personal Finance Workarounds.

The six rules of personal finance workarounds

Rule #1: Brainstorm affordable tactics.

Have your partner drive you to work (or vice versa). Carpool with a colleague. Walk. Ride your bike. Use public transit. Borrow a car. Work from home part time to reduce the commute issue.

Not all of these suggestions will work for you; maybe none would. The point is to think outside the plastic. A great way to do that is with The Second Rule of Personal Finance Workarounds:

Rule #2: Ask for help.

A friend or relative might be willing to lend a bike (or a car!) or drop you at the light-rail station. You’ll never know unless you ask. Need short-term child care, the use of a lawnmower, or tips on cheap comestibles? Put it out in the universe via peer group, social media or the Get Rich Slowly forums.

Suppose you’re not an ask-for-help kinda guy? In that case, get going right now on The Third Rule of Personal Finance Workarounds:

Rule #3: Build an emergency fund.

If you had that $150 or $400 in an emergency fund, you wouldn’t have these issues. See “Stealth Savings: Sneaky Ways to Fatten Your Account.”

Saving is easier with The Fourth Rule of Personal Finance Workarounds:

Rule #4: Do a financial fire drill.

Create a budget for food, rent/mortgage, utilities and debt service (student loans, child support). Go to the frugal mattresses for a few weeks (or months) to save that emergency fund or save that car-repair fund.

A big help with the financial fire drill is The Fifth Rule of Personal Finance Workarounds:

Rule #5: Maintain a deep pantry.

Personal finance goddess Liz Weston calls a well-stocked larder “the emergency fund you can eat” because it cuts both short- and long-term costs. During cutbacks you’ll just need to buy fresh stuff and, over the long haul, you’ll buy less takeout because you have items to cook.

Unable to do this because you’re barely covering the bills now? Time for The Sixth Rule of Personal Finance Workarounds:

Rule #6: Do the (side) hustle.

Tend bar. Deliver pizza. Let people know you’re available to clean houses, babysit, walk dogs, defrag computers. For other earning entry points, see “Can’t Get A Job? Get A Microjob!” (Note: Don’t run yourself ragged. The point is to get a little ahead, not to wind up in the hospital.)

The realities of debt

Again: Sometimes life happens. Nobody asks for unemployment or illness or Hurricane Sandy. The point of these workarounds is to be ready when life hands you a big bag of poo.

Available credit is not a superpower. It’s actually Kryptonite, and it will slowly destroy your finances, your peace of mind, and your ability to direct your own life.

Sure, it would be nice to go out to dinner and a show with your friends. No, it’s not fair that you got laid off or hit by a bus.

But putting all your “wants” on plastic is like loading your pockets with rocks and jumping into the deep end. Swiping that card is so easy — and then you realize that getting your head back above water is going to be very, very difficult. Maybe even impossible.

How about it, Readers: Do you consider credit cards to be survival tools? Have you had to use one that way? How long did it take you to pay it off, and what steps have you taken to prepare in case something like that happens again?

(Former GRS staff writer Donna Freedman is on staff at Money Talks News and writes for a number of other websites and magazines. She blogs about money and midlife at DonnaFreedman.com and about writing at WriteABlogPeopleWillRead.com.)

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