As 2017 comes to a close, many Americans will set financial goals for the upcoming year. Based on a recent survey, we’re guessing those goals will probably include paying down debt.
On Monday, NerdWallet released its Household Credit Card Debt Study, revealing that Americans owe an estimated $905 billion in credit card debt. That figure is up 8% from last year, and includes balances from cardholders who pay off their cards every month, as well as those who carry a balance from month to month.
Boiled down, the average household owes $15,654 in credit card debt.
This data is alarming, but not record-breaking. According to NerdWallet, Americans owe $8.74 trillion in mortgage debt, $1.21 trillion in auto loans, and $1.36 trillion in student loans.
Why so much debt?
It’s no secret that Americans love their plastic, but why has the amount of debt continued to rise?
For starters, more and more Americans are putting medical expenses on their credit cards.
In the survey, 17% of respondents said they’re in debt because they spent money on an emergency medical expense. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, health care costs have increased 34% over the past decade, while income has only grown 20%. To keep up with bills, a whopping 27 million adults are putting medical expenses on a credit card.
A 2016 survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation echoed the same problem: 37% of respondents increased credit card debt to pay medical bills.
Spending has also climbed in other categories, including food (22%) and housing (20%).
The increase in debt can also be attributed to interest rates. In the survey, 41% of respondents admit to spending more than they should on unnecessary purchases. Spending more can lead to carrying a balance, which leads to more money spent paying interest. For instance, if you keep a balance of $6,081, with an interest rate of 14.87%, you’ll end up paying $904 in interest per year.
What you can do
First and foremost, Americans need to get honest about their spending. If you’re charging purchases that you cannot afford to pay off right away, or if you are living above your means, it’s time to rein it in. Only then can you start to address your growing debt.
In a perfect world, you would pay off your credit card balance in full every month. Still — sadly — only 1 in 5 (about 18%) of Americans actually do this. In reality, about one-quarter of cardholders say they pay whatever they can afford at the end of the month, and 23% say they only pay the minimum amount due.
If you can’t pay off your full balance every month, that’s OK. Focus on keeping interest payments as low as possible.
“To reduce the amount of interest you’re paying, consider making payments more frequently than once a month to keep your average daily balance down,” said Kimberly Palmer, NerdWallet’s credit card expert.
Palmer also suggests consolidating your debt onto a card with 0% introductory APR. This way, you can work on paying down debt during the interest-free 12- to 18-month introductory period.
The online survey was conducted by Harris Poll, and surveyed 2,089 adults ages 18 and older. NerdWallet also used data from the US Census Bureau and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.