- Overall, credit card debt has declined in the Covid pandemic.
- But for many people, their balances are only growing and it can be hard to see a way out.
- These steps can help.
It's yet another example of how the pandemic's economic recovery has been uneven: While overall credit card debt is on the decline, others are seeing their balances mushroom into huge figures.
Money Management International, a nonprofit credit counseling agency, recently analyzed the credit card balances of renters who sought financial assistance from the organization. Renters have been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic, and federal aid allocated by Congress to address their crisis has been painfully slow to reach households. More than a third of Americans are renters.
The typical renter seeking the agency's help carried around $3,000 in credit card debt in 2019, Money Management International found. The average balance so far in 2021 is closer to $25,000.
Others agencies that help those financially struggling report the same.
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"We do see people who have $20,000, $30,000 and $40,000 in credit card debt," said Bruce McClary, a spokesman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
Balances that high can take decades to pay off, experts say.
If someone made only the minimum monthly payments on a credit card with a $25,000 balance, charging the average annual rate of 16.22%, it would take them nearly 30 years to be free of that debt, and they'll have paid more than $32,500 in interest by the end, according to an example provided by Ted Rossman, industry analyst at CreditCards.com.
The minimum payment on that balance would begin at around $588 a month, and would decrease over time as the balance dwindled.
One way to speed up repayment, Rossman said, would be to continue paying the original, higher minimum payment.
"That would trim their payoff period way back to a little over five years," he said. "And their interest expense would be $12,443."
For people who owe such large balances, Rossman recommends reaching out to a nonprofit credit counselor. Money Management International, GreenPath and other members of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling are options.
"They can provide helpful advice and negotiate with creditors on your behalf," Rossman said.
For example, he said it's common for people to get a more manageable payoff plan, thanks to a credit counselor, "something like a 7% interest rate over five years."
Under those fixed terms, someone making payments on a $25,000 balance would be debt-free in five years and will pay just $4,700 in interest.
Be prepared that some credit counselors charge fees for their help, although these costs are usually well worth it when you consider the interest they can save you from paying, experts say.
Another option for people with good credit is to take out a personal loan to pay off your credit card debt, Rossman said.
You'll still be stuck making monthly payments, but hopefully for less time because the interest rates on personal loans can be as low as 5% or 6%, compared with the 16% or more annual fee on credit cards.
Those with good credit may also be able to transfer their debt to a 0% balance transfer card.
These cards offer you a certain amount of months during which no interest is charged. If you found one with a 20-month period, and paid $1,250 a month, for example, your $25,000 balance would be gone in less than two years.
"Just beware that the interest rate ranges from 14.49% to 24.49% after the 0% promo ends," Rossman said.
Many are also likely waiting for the economic recovery to hit them to be able to meaningfully address their debts.
"More often than not, the people that we're seeing are having financial challenges far beyond their control," McClary said. "A lot of the spending that's taking place is out of necessity."