How to keep credit card debt from swallowing your finances

One survey found 43 percent of Americans have carried a card balance for more than two years, not knowing it negatively affects their credit score

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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – Your credit score can affect your life quite a bit, especially around the holiday season.

Many people put their Christmas shopping on their credit cards, only paying the minimum balance and hurting their credit score.

Millions of Americans are struggling with credit card debt and with so much information out there, it’s difficult to know what’s true and what isn’t.

“We’re looking through the bills and she said, ‘You guys are just terrible with money. When are you going to get your act together?'” said Bill Lenzi of what his 16-year-old daughter asked him and his wife, Christy.

The Lenzis had $100,000 in medical bills and debt. On $1,100 a month, they couldn’t get their finances under control.

“You let things go so long, you got to take care of them,” Christy said.

Seven credit cards later and they had to declare bankruptcy.

“You tell yourself that you’re only going to use it in emergencies. You’re going to make sure on payday, you’re going to make the payment then add a few dollars extra. That happens the first time or two and then it doesn’t,” Bill said.

The Lenzis are working to improve their financial life by taking classes at the First United Methodist Church in Girard. They’re learning how to get their spending under control.

This situation is not unusual. Americans seem addicted to debt, especially from credit cards.

One survey found 43 percent of Americans have carried a card balance for more than two years, not knowing it negatively affects their credit score.

“You have to pay this back. We do see sometimes people rack up debt for an extended period of time because they make some poor choices,” said Bryan Laraway, of Bury Financial Group.

Getting out of that debt can be difficult.

“If it goes too long, then you’re going to get your credit score dinged,” Laraway said. “It just compounds from there with fees and interest, and that’s going to hurt you when you’re looking for credit down the road.”

Laraway sees a lot of mistakes made when it comes to credit, particularly among college students.

Even if all credit card debt is paid off, your score won’t improve immediately. It will take months, sometimes years, but you can use that time to help improve your score.

Laraway’s best advice? Pay off any credit card debt you have and never carry a balance.

“If you can’t pay it off in that one month — period — don’t buy it,” Laraway said.

Or you can follow the Lenzis’ lead. Once you pay off your debt, don’t use credit cards. Your credit score won’t fall to 0, you just won’t have one.

“I’m too scared. They’re not dragging me back down again, it’s not happening,” Bill said.

You can also check your credit report once a year for free and look for any incorrect information to help improve your score. You will not be able to get your credit score for free but you can see what appears on your report.

The Most Common Credit Card Myths

  • Keeping a balance in a credit card helps you build credit
    • False: Financial experts recommend using a credit card if, and only if, you can afford to pay it off at the end of the month. If you can’t pay the balance off at the end of the month, don’t buy it. Save for whatever you want to purchase. Keeping a balance on your card from month to month will not help you build credit long-term.
  • Having more credit cards can help you increase your credit score
    • This can be true for some but having multiple credit cards can lead to a lot of money problems. Missed payments are very common when people lose track of where and with which cards they are spending. Lenders are also looking to lend money to people with more diverse types of credit. Financial experts recommend if you want to have any credit at all, have different types. Cards, vehicles, student loans, and housing are a few good examples.
  • I only have one credit score
    • False: You have several credit scores. The three main ones will be from the three credit bureaus — Transunion, Equifax, and Experian. Lenders will also calculate their own scores for you based on their own needs. You do not need to keep track of all of your scores. It’s best to only keep track of two to three at most, usually from the three credit bureaus.
  • Credit score is important in the long run
    • This question has both a “yes” and “no” answer. Yes, a credit score is important if you are looking to borrow money. A credit score will give you access to better interest rates as well. However, borrowing money for things you cannot afford is dangerous and can lead to long-term financial hardship. Financial experts recommend saving up as much as you can and buying expensive things in cash or using a debit card.
  • All credit checks are bad for my credit card score
    • False: There are two types of checks on your credit score. A hard pull can impact your score about 10 percent. A soft pull will have much less of an impact.
  • The more money you have available in credit, the better your score
    • While this is true, it also depends on how much you spend. Financial experts recommend spending a maximum of 30 percent of your total available credit limit per month. Any more could be seen as too high. You want to have a good credit limit to balance ratio.
  • Promotions from credit cards make getting a specific card worth it
    • Many of the financial experts WKBN talked to said the promotions offered by credit cards, such as a lower interest rate, cash back, or travel miles, are not worth it. If you’re going to use a card, it’s better to use the card as intended without expecting too much from extra rewards.
  • Spending your entire limit won’t hurt your score
    • False: Spending your entire limit is really bad for your credit score. You only want to spend about 30 percent of your total credit limit. If you have a high credit limit and low balance, that’s good. But if you have a high credit limit and high balance? Not so good.

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