Credit Cards: The Crack Cocaine of the Middle Class

It’s exhilarating, it’s captivating and it can go a long way toward ruining your life.

Most people never think about it in these terms, but debt can very easily become addictive — once you start using it, you can come to depend on it to get through everyday life. Like any addiction, debt and borrowing can have their fun moments… but the crash is much worse than the high.

For many average Americans, credit cards are the debt drug of choice. It’s the crack cocaine of the middle class, pervasive, commonplace and life-controling.

We’ve talked a lot about debt and how it tricks us into financial slavery. So this article isn’t here to convince you that debt in general is a bad thing. Rather, it’s here to demonstrate what a profound impact credit cards have on us as a culture, and how much money they’re costing us over the course of our lives.

Many people get their first credit cards when they’re young, and use them only for emergencies. Eventually, though, credit cards are used to pay for luxury items; later they pay for everyday purchases too. Before long, the unsuspecting credit card user has a balance of several thousand dollars, and no idea of where the money went. Though they’re making the minimum payments and staying current on the account, they’re accumulating debt much faster than they’re paying it off, trapping them in a perpetual debt cycle.

How bad is the problem? Check out some numbers that we found from a 2004 study:

  • The average college student graduates with $4,100 in credit card debt.
  • The average American household has a balance of nearly $7,400 on their credit cards.
  • The average credit card interest rate is 12.83 percent.

Those numbers may not sound terribly high, but when you study the payoff structure, you realize that the average person according to this scenario has unwittingly signed himself up for a very long, very expensive journey. Most minimum credit card payments are computed by by adding the monthly interest due on the account to one percent of the principal. This means that even if you don’t charge any more purchases to the card, it will take years and years to clear the account if you only pay the minimums.

For the student with a $4,1000 balance, the minimum payment would be around $82/month. At that rate, it will take 216 months to pay off the loan (that’s 18 years). When it is finally paid, the now-middle aged person will have paid approximately $3,494 in interest… in addition to the principle of $4,100.

The numbers are even more bleak for the household with a $7,400 balance. The monthly payment of $148 will take 22 years to clear the balance. When it’s all over, the consumer will have paid an additional $6,794 in interest… enough to buy a very decent used car!

All of these calculations are available at the Federal Reserve’s website. If you have the courage, hop over there and enter your credit card balance and interest rates — it will give you a great reality check about how long you’ll actually be paying off that balance!

Once we really look at these numbers for what they are, we see how deceptively dangerous credit card debt is. Sure, we love the spending and the flexible payment terms that credit cards afford us… but hangover is a killer. When it comes to credit card debt, the only way to win is to stay away from it altogether.

If you have credit card balances to pay off, hope is not lost. You need not resign yourself to making decades of payments and huge amounts of interest. There is a fix. But it’s not going to be comfortable. In fact, you may even call it withdrawal.

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Photo via Flickr, by user The Consumerist. Used under Creative Commons License.</em