America's $1 trillion in credit card debt is terrible news for our future

American consumers have hit a major milestone this summer: we now have the highest amount of revolving credit debt in U.S. history. As of June, Americans had $1.021 trillion in outstanding revolving credit, according to data from the Federal Reserve. That is nearly equivalent to the gross domestic product of Russia. Of the $1.021 trillion in outstanding revolving credit, $1 trillion is credit card debt. Prior to June, the record for outstanding revolving credit was $1.020 trillion, set in April of 2008.

Statistics such as this, regarding our credit card debt, should be wake-up calls for Americans. Even if you personally think you currently have a good handle on your credit card debt, all it takes is one emergency to go from feeling your debt is manageable to being in over your head — or in over your credit card limit. A common mistake that I frequently encounter, is people asking for investment returns that surpass the interest they are paying on their debt.

They think that, with the right investment, they can get a higher return than what they are paying on their credit cards, but the most they can really hope for is to break even. The problem is investments don’t work that way. You will never find a reliable investment that can guarantee consistent returns at a rate as high as the interest on your credit card debt. The interest on your credit card debt is just too high.


The fact is that credit card debt is never truly manageable. If you are paying interest on your outstanding balance, you already have a financial problem on your hands. The average monthly balance for borrowers who cannot pay their balance in full is $9,600, on $1,254 in credit card interest is paid each year. Interest rates are only expected to go up. Banks love to pass rate hikes directly onto credit card holders, so as the Fed ratchets rates up, consumers can expect to see their credit card interest increase as well.

Credit cards are not inherently bad. In fact, when used properly, credit cards can be an intelligent way to manage your finances. Not only do they save you from carrying around cash, but they also allow you to put off paying for purchases until your next statement, allowing your money to continue earning interest for you. Additionally, many credit card companies offer sign-up bonuses and rewards that often lure people into signing up and spending a certain amount of money within the first few months. These rewards can really pay off for people who can keep up with their payments, but for those who can’t, this is often what starts the debt building process.

The problem is Americans are spending money they do not have to. Debt does not always look the way that we expect it to, it’s often hidden behind deceiving products that make the purchaser seem more financially stable than they actually are. It is more than common to see couples in their 30s and 40s with tens of thousands of dollars in debt because they bought a house outside of their price range, or a new sports car that they did not necessarily need. The trick to using credit cards to your benefit is simply paying your balance in full each month. If you ever find yourself unable to pay the full balance on every card you have, that means it is time for you to cut back on spending.

It can be helpful to think of personal spending this way: Whatever you do not spend today, will be available for you to spend tomorrow, or more importantly, in retirement. As the great investor Warren Buffett famously said, “Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.” Using credit cards is cutting down tiny saplings that, left alone for years, can flourish into giant oaks that will protect you and your family.

Americans need to start viewing credit card debt as the growing problem that it is. Our consumer spending is out of control and sacrifices will need to be made to turn our collective debt around. However, we shouldn’t look at future actions as “sacrifices.” Credit cards have given people an inflated sense of our purchasing power, which allows them to think they can buy things they simply can’t afford. This $1.021 trillion in debt did not accumulate overnight — we need to take accountability for it. It takes time to get yourself into debt, and it will take time getting out.

Chris Markowski (@ChrisMarko) is an author, investment banker, stock market analyst and consumer advocate. He is the personality behind Watchdog on Wall Street and the founder of Markowski Investments.

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