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Poll: How Americans Really Feel About Their Credit Card Debt

Walecia Konrad, February 21, 2007

An awful lot of Americans feel lousy about the way they're handling credit card debt, say the results of a Bankrate commissioned survey.

Do you worry about how you'll pay credit card bills every month?
Don't worry 51%
Don't worry much 19%
Worry 25%
Refused to answer 5%
Source: 2007

Twenty-five percent worry about how they are going to pay their credit card bills each month and 28 percent feel guilty about how much money they are putting on their cards.

"There's an awful lot of emotion involved when it comes to credit card debt," says Robert Manning, director of the Center for Consumer Financial Services at the Rochester Institute of Technology, "and, a lot of it is negative.

"If the poll had only surveyed people who carry a balance on their credit cards, I'm positive you'd find that those percentages would be much higher," he says.

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Susan Keating, president and CEO of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling goes one step further. After looking over the Bankrate poll results, Keating wonders whether Americans are being honest with themselves.

"As the old saying goes, 'the first and most important step is admitting you have a problem' and it seems like when it comes to debt consumers are still living in denial."

Do you sometimes feel guilty about how much money you put on your cards each month?
Don't feel guilty 52%
Don't feel that guilty 17%
Feel guilty to some extent 28%
Refused to answer 3%
Source: 2007

Doing OK with credit cards

But there were some bright spots in our survey of 1,014 adults conducted for Bankrate by GfK, Roper Public Affairs and Media.

Eight out of 10 people surveyed said they have not reached the credit limit on any of their credit cards. And, more than half of the people with credit cards say they pay their balances in full each month.

Interestingly, about the same number of people who said they didn't feel guilty or worry about credit card debt, also said they try to follow a strict budget each month (76 percent). Coincidence? Probably not, says Greg McBride, senior financial analyst at

People who pay attention to their budgets are less likely to make impulsive credit card purchases. They know to avoid that buy-now, pay-later thinking that credit cards can sometimes cause.

Do you follow a strict monthly budget?
Follow a strict budget 53%
Follow a budget somewhat 23%
Don't follow much of a budget 22%
Refused to answer 2%
Source: 2007

"Sticking to a budget is the best thing you can do to control credit card debt," says Manning.

Americans Like Their Plastic

A third of the people surveyed said they had three or more credit cards and a whopping 23 percent have four or more with nearly 10 percent of those acknowledging they had more than five credit cards. Seventeen percent said they had only one card and the same number of people carry two credit cards. A good chunk of people say they have no credit cards at all (31 percent).

Too many cards can be a problem if you don't use them properly, says Jean Chatzky, personal finance expert and author of "Make Money, Not Excuses." "You might be tempted to charge on all of them, and go over what you can really afford," she says.

How many cards do you have?
None 31%
One 17%
Two 17%
Three 10%
Four or more 23%
Refused to answer 2%
Source: 2007

Our survey showed the likelihood of having a credit card correlates with income. Forty-seven percent of respondents with a household income of $50,000 or more have at least three credit cards.

Consumers with tighter budgets are different. More than 60 percent of respondents with a household income of less than $20,000 don't have any credit cards.

"That makes sense when you think about it," says Manning. "But these days even people with higher incomes can't afford the kind of credit card debt they're carrying."

Our Payment Habits

While 55 percent of people surveyed said they pay off their credit card balances each month, another 9 percent say they make only the minimum payment and, scarily, 3 percent say they sometimes cannot make the minimum.

How do you pay your cards?
Pay off balance each month 55%
Pay some of the balance each month 29%
Make the minimum payment 9%
Sometimes cannot even pay the minimum 3%
Refused to answer 4%
Source: 2007

That means that close to half of Americans are paying interest to the credit card companies and may be making purchases that they can't always afford, says Manning.

"Carrying a balance means you're tied to paying your credit card debt instead of other, much more important financial goals like saving for retirement or having a bit set aside for emergencies," he adds.

Late Payments Reverberate

When it comes to late payments, a third of the people polled said they have missed one or two due dates and 6 percent have missed several due dates.

"Those are disturbing numbers considering the punitive interest rate of 30 percent or more that can kick in if you make a late payment," points out McBride.

Credit card companies routinely charge high late payment fees. One or two late payments and you can expect to see a hike in your interest rate almost immediately.

How often over the past two years did you miss a credit card due date?
Once or twice 33%
Several times 6%
Never 58%
Refused to answer 4%
Source: 2007

And thanks to something known as universal default, if you make a late payment on one credit card and it's recorded in your credit report, your other card companies may raise your rates as well.

According to the Government Accountability Office, late fees averaged $13 in 1995. They soared 169 percent to an average of $35 in 2005.

How's that for motivation?

This national random-digit-dialed phone study of 1,014 adults 18 or older was conducted for Bankrate by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media. The surveys were conducted from Jan. 26 through Jan. 28, 2006. The sample was weighted by demographic factors including age, gender, race, education and census region to ensure reliable and accurate representation of adults in U.S. households. Results based on the entire sample of 1,014 adults are projectable to the entire adult population in the United States, with a sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

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This story ran on Yahoo! Finance on February 21, 2007.