Why keeping credit card debt in check will be key this holiday season

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Why keeping credit card debt in check will be key this holiday season
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The holiday season is here and that means stores packed with shoppers and merchants dangling sales in front of them at every turn. For stores, it’s the time of the year they can climb out of the red and into the black. For consumers, it’s the time to buy things for loved ones and sometimes even treat ourselves.

Win-win, right? Well, not necessarily, according to some of the world’s most influential economists. Underneath the good cheer are some stark numbers that responsible consumers should be aware of.

Household debt – the total amount of consumer debt of people under one roof, including auto loans, credit card debt and mortgages – has surpassed levels not seen since the Great Recession of 2008. Economists at Deutsche Bank said in a recent note that this in itself is not necessarily a cause for alarm.

Analysts warn of high credit card debt

We’ve written about how consumer credit card debt has reached a record high as U.S. lenders have opened the floodgates on credit. What economists are saying now is that the income of some Americans is masking the toll all this spending is taking on others.

U.S. households appear to be holding their own, meaning that on paper they look like they can pay back a record-$12.58 trillion in debt. What is interesting, though, is that regular Americans are not the ones keeping the numbers from being so alarming — it’s the super-wealthy.

A Business Insider op-ed described it this way: “U.S. economic growth has become so skewed toward the wealthiest households that data showing healthy consumer balance sheets masks underlying troubles facing middle-class and poor Americans.”

For months now, Americans have been increasingly using their credit cards to buy things, slowly racking balances.

This was highlighted in an August report by the Federal Reserve. The agency said that a particularly troubling development over the past year is that delinquent credit card balances have “climbed notably.”

The recent Deutsche Bank note mentioned by Business Insider identified the soaring pay of wealthy Americans as skewing U.S. incomes, but “underneath the surface, there may be incipient cracks forming,” according to economists.

They added: “The aggregate household balance sheet is solid. But because these measures are essentially means (averages), they are skewed by the upper end of the income distribution and may not accurately reflect developments for a large fraction of the population.”

In other words, the debt that Americans are incurring may come back to bite them in the rear. That means being responsible this holiday season and tackling your debt makes all the (dollars and) sense in the world right  now.

How to tackle credit card debt during the holidays

Money expert Clark Howard is a big proponent of consumers who take the initiative to prioritize paying off their credit card debt. Here’s a Clark strategy you can use:

“Most people only pay the minimum on their credit card bills each month when they could actually afford to pay more,” he writes. “Your statements make the minimum amount very clear, so that’s what most people focus on.”

Clark says instead of focusing on your monthly payment shown on your credit card bill, look for another number.

“Take a look at your monthly statement, and instead of focusing on the minimum payment, pay attention to the box that shows how much you need to pay each month to get the debt wiped out in 36 months. When you give yourself a shorter time period, your progress is tangible – so you can actually see your debt significantly decreasing as the months go by.”

One good rule to go by is to throw any excess cash you have at your debt. This way, you’re seamlessly reducing your bills in an organic way, without much effort. Examples of excess cash could be a tax refund or bonus from work.

Another tried-and-true tactic when you’re in stores this holiday is to not use a shopping cart. Clark says you’ll be surprised how it conditions you to get only what you can carry – and leave with more money in your wallet!

RELATED: Clark Howard’s guide to paying off credit card debt

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