Consumers have racked up more than $2.2 trillion in purchases and cash advances on major credit cards in just the last year. And it's become a habit for them to spend more than they have. The overall credit card debt grew by 315 percent from 1989 to 2006, according to public policy research firm Demos.
To compound the problem, fewer people are paying their credit cards bills on time. The percentage of people delinquent on their credit cards is the highest it's been in three years, according to CardTrack.com.
With banks tightening their standards and the drumbeat of recession getting louder, there's no better time to grab control of your debt now.
First, you have to determine if your credit card spending habits are out of control. Here are some signs:
You find that you can't make your minimum payments on your credit cards.
You realize you've been borrowing money from family members or friends to cover your payments.
You've gone to a lender you wouldn't normally use -- like a payday lender that loans you money at really high rates against your next paycheck.
Once you've made a list of your debts, it's time to prioritize your payments. Interest rates, on average, can range from 10 to 18 percent, according to Curtis Arnold of Cardratings.com. Tackle your highest-interest credit card first. With rates averaging about 14.5 percent, you really want to knock out the high-interest debts quickly. Try shifting high-interest credit card debt onto cards that have lower interest rates.
The principle is not the only problem, it's also the interest you're accruing. If you have a $2,000 balance at a 14 percent interest rate -- and make just the minimum payments -- it will take you more than 14 years to pay off that debt plus the interest. Try to pay more than the minimum payments on your credit cards whenever you can.
Another tip: Keep a close eye on your card's interest rates and find out if there is room for negotiation
Credit card companies are increasing fees and cutting credit limits, and some are increasing rates, according to Arnold, so be sure to scrutinize your monthly statements. Often the details of these changes are included in the fine print on your statement.
If you've been a good customer and you have good credit, now is a good time to negotiate for a higher credit limit or to knock some points off your interest rate, says John Ulzheimer of Credit.com.
All it takes is a phone call. And it could save you hundreds of dollars in interest payments. Many credit card issuers already have policies in place. These credit card companies don't want to lose your business. Of course, if you don't have a great credit history or you've made a few late payments, you may not get anywhere.
One of the most important steps you can take in tackling debt is improving your credit. Your credit report is being even more closely scrutinized today by credit card issuers, mortgage lenders, auto dealers, insurance carriers and even potential employers.
Also, don't close old credit cards accounts. Even if you don't use them frequently, it looks better for your credit score if you can show a long credit history, said Ulzheimer.
And, he says, delay some spending.
As a rule of thumb, you should try not to use more than 10 percent of your credit limit when making purchases. "The people with the best credit have a utilization rate of no more than 7 percent," he says.
If your credit utilization is 50 percent or more of your credit limit, you are doing some real damage to your credit score, says Craig Watts of Fair Isaac, one of the companies that provides credit scores. When the new FICO '08 scoring model is adapted in May, if you have a utilization of over 50 percent, you'll be penalized even more heavily.