10 Signs Your Credit Card Debt Is Out of Control

A woman sits across from a huge credit card
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It's so easy for credit card debt to get out of control. One day you're happily swiping your credit card, buying things you've always wanted, taking trips to places you've always wanted to visit. The next thing you know your cards are all maxed out and you can't quite remember how it happened.

Is Your Credit Card Debt Out of Control?

There's no gauge to let you know when your credit card debt is getting out of control.

Your credit card issuers aren't going to warn you that your balances are more than you can afford to pay. Instead, it's up to you to have to watch for these 10 signs that show that your debt is out of control:

1. Your cards are maxed out or above the credit limit. Maxed out credit cards are a sign that you haven't been paying your balance in full each month. Multiple maxed out credit cards only compound the problem, making it more difficult to pay off your credit card balances. And if you don't have emergency savings, you left without a source of funding for an emergency.

2. You can't afford to pay anything except the minimum payment. The exact amount of debt that counts as “out of control” will vary from person to person depending on their ability to pay. A sure sign that your debt is out of control is being able to pay only the minimum on your credit cards. Minimum payments are the lowest amount you can pay on your credit card and keep your account in good standing.

If you can't pay more than that and you're still using your credit cards, your debt is getting worse each month.

3. You're late or missing payments. Once your minimum payments become unaffordable, you're in trouble. Missed credit card payments only make your credit card situation worse. Late payments increase the amount you have to pay to get caught up and have a negative impact on your credit score.

By the time you miss two payments, your interest rate increases and catching up is almost impossible. The moment it starts getting hard to make your minimum payment is when you need to start making big change to your credit card habits.

4. You're paying your credit cards with other types of debt. If you're using cash advances, repeated balance transfers, payday loans or any other form of debt to pay your credit cards, you're in big trouble. Not only are you not really making any progress paying off your credit cards, you're creating more debt by borrowing money to stay afloat.

5. You're using credit cards for necessities and everyday purchases. Having to use your credit card for regular purchases is a sign that, not only is your credit card debt out of control, it's a sign of bigger financial problems. If you continue using your credit cards for regular purchases—and it's not part of a strategy to earn more credit card rewards—eventually you'll run out of available credit. You'll have to make big changes to avoid completely drowning in debt.

6. Your credit score starts dropping. Credit scores are used to gauge your creditworthiness—or how likely it is that you will default on your credit and loan obligations.

The amount of debt you're carrying (compared to your credit limits) is 30% of your credit score.

If your credit score is falling even though you're making your payments on time each month, it's sign that your growing credit card debt is worse than you expected. If you don't get a free credit score with your credit card statement each month, you can check your credit score for free though CreditKarma.com, CreditSesame.com, and Quizzle.com.

7. Your new applications are denied. Credit card issuers may be able to predict that your credit card debt is out control even before you do. After a denied credit card application, check your mail for a letter from the credit card issuer explaining why you were denied. If your debt or high credit card balances is one of the reasons, it's a sign that you need to rein in your spending and start tackling your debt before it gets worse.

8. You're hiding your debt—from yourself or your spouse. Feeling like you have something to hide is a sign that things are wrong. If you're not opening your credit card statements because you don't want to face your balances or you're going out of your way to keep your spouse from finding out about your debt, you likely have more debt than you can deal with.

9. You can't afford to save money because you have too much debt. The more money you spend on your debt, the less you have for other things—like saving money. Without access to savings, for example in an emergency, you may have to create even more debt to get out of a financial bind.

10. You worry about how you're going to pay off your credit cards. If you felt like your credit card debt was under control, you'd have nothing to worry about. However, stressing about your credit card debt is a sign that it's definitely out of control. Don't assume that because you're not stressed about your debt that you're safe. It could be that you're ignoring your debt or in denial about just how bad it really is.

7 Ways to Get Your Credit Card Debt Under Control

Once you realize your credit card debt is out of control, it becomes your responsibility to do something about it right away. Ignoring the severity of your credit card debt will only make it worse and harder to deal with when you finally decide to make some changes:

1. Stop spending. Once you realize your debt is out of control or getting out of control, the first thing you need to do is stop using your credit cards. Any additional credit card purchases will only make your credit card debt grow. The bigger your balances are, the harder they will be to pay off.

2. Cut up your credit cards. If you're not disciplined enough to stop using your credit cards, make it more difficult for yourself. Cut up your cards and throw away the pieces. You can go a step further and close your accounts completely if that's what it takes to stop using your credit cards.

3. Take inventory of your debts. Get a clear understanding of how much you owe and who you owe it to. Make a list of all your credit cards, the interest rate, the balance, and the current minimum payment. If the accounts are past due, write down the amount you need to pay to catch up. While the list may be intimidating, you can make much better decisions about your debt with all the information in front of you.

4. Figure out how much you can pay toward your debt each month. Review your income and expenses to figure out what you can squeeze from your budget to start paying back your credit card debt. You may have to make big changes to your spending to be able to afford your living expenses and pay off your debt.

5. Stop spending extra money. You've had a good time racking up credit card debt, now it's time to get serious about your finances. Cut out recreational spending and focus on buying only the things you need. It may be a painful sacrifice at first, but you can adjust. Remember the reason you're making these changes is to better your finances and create a more secure future for yourself.

6. Pick a credit card and pay more than the minimum. While the end goal is to pay off all your credit cards, trying to pay them off all at once isn't the most efficient approach. Instead, focus on paying off your credit cards once at a time. You can start with the one with the highest interest rate, highest balance, lowest balance, or any other card that you would like to get rid. What matters most is that you choose a card and spend the bulk of your extra money paying off that balance. As you pay off each credit card, choose another to focus on until they're all paid off.

Use a credit card repayment calculator to help you figure out the best way to pay off your debt and get an idea of when you'll finally be done paying off your credit cards.

7. Try saving money on interest. If you still have pretty good credit, you may be able to save money on interest by asking your credit card issuer for a lower interest rate or by taking advantage of a 0% balance transfer offer. 

Should You Swear Off Credit Cards for Good?

After battling with credit card debt, many people decide to never use credit cards again. Keep in mind that credit cards themselves aren't bad—it's the way you use credit cards that can get you into trouble. Not having a credit card can make some transactions, like renting a car, a little tougher. Here's what you can do to avoid getting back into credit card trouble.

Spend only what you can afford to pay off in a month. Avoid using your credit card as an income replacement. If you can't afford to buy something in cash, you can't afford to buy it, not even with a credit card.

Pay your balance in full each month. Once you focus on spending only what you can afford to pay off in a month, you can afford to pay off your balance each month. This is the only way to keep your credit cards under control and avoid credit card debt.

If, for some reason, you feel that you're not disciplined enough to follow these rules, it's better not to have a credit card. A debit card or prepaid card will let you make the same purchases that you can make with a credit card without getting into debt.