If you think inflation feels bad at the grocery store or gas pump, consider the pain it inflicts on a credit-card statement, where higher prices don’t just impact the cost of items buy but also the financing to pay for them.

And according to several recent studies, a growing number of consumers are getting that sick feeling from the bills they see every month, as credit-card balances are nearing record levels and appear certain to surpass previous highs and eclipse $1 trillion for the first time.

It’s proof that plenty of Americans are engaging in bad financial behavior.

Yes, I’d like to believe that regular readers of a column like mine are fiscally responsible and not reckless with debt; I hope what I am about to say mostly feels like a sermon given to the choir.

But as the times are a-changing, so are strategies with credit. Behaviors that were acceptable and responsible a short time ago are not nearly so healthy or proper today, a situation that will only get worse until interest rate hikes stop and inflation recedes.

In the meantime, the numbers suggest that a lot of Americans —– and the country as a whole — are headed for a credit-card debt crisis.


As recently as last year, few people would have predicted such a thing.

When the pandemic took hold in 2020, Americans cut spending and focused on debt reduction; credit-card debt nationally plunged from a record $927 billion in the fourth quarter of 2019 to $770 billion in the first quarter of 2021, according to consumer debt data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Since then, however, Americans have added more than $100 billion to their revolving credit balances, which now total some $887 billion.

With inflation and interest rates rising — plus other factors that have many consumers struggling — it’s a lock that the old record will be broken soon, probably by year’s end.

At the same time, rates themselves are breaking another record, for the highest average credit-card rate nationally.

Bankrate.com pegs average credit-card rates above 18 percent, the highest since 1996.


That barely accounts for the Federal Reserve’s last interest rate hike, which card issuers hadn’t fully finished digesting before the central bank raised interest rates another 0.75 percentage points on Wednesday.

Further, the Fed signaled that it is likely to bump rates again – by a total of 1.25 percent – before the year is over.


LendingTree, which in 2019 started tracking rates on 200 of the most popular credit cards in the country (issued by more than 50 lenders) recently pegged the average credit card interest rate at roughly 21.6 percent, a record.

And several studies show the average interest rate on new cards being issued today is north of 21 percent.

With more increases already penciled in, rates of 25 percent will not be outliers by the time New Year’s Day rolls around.

It should be enough to scare consumers off debt, but it isn’t.


Analysts from LendingTree calculated that the national average card debt among people carrying unpaid balances was $6,569. Meanwhile, a CreditCards.com study released this week showed that nearly two-thirds of credit-card debtors have been carrying a balance for at least a year.

If you’re constantly facing credit-card bills — never zeroing balances after big purchases or just the regular monthly spend — then carrying credit-card debt isn’t some temporary way to get by, it’s an ongoing part of your financial strategy.

Good luck with that, because high prices and higher rates will make it harder to pay off going forward, adding years to how long it takes to zero a bill by paying at or near minimum levels.

Worse yet, much as you can try deflecting the blame for the situation to the economy and rising prices, most credit-card debt issues are of the borrower’s own making.

Yes, dollars don’t go as far now as they did a year ago. But that doesn’t just apply to goods you buy, it also affects the interest you owe. If you have $5,000 in credit-card debt and are making $500 monthly payments trying to bring the balance down, less of your money now goes to principal (unless you have a fixed-rate card).

Your behavior may not have changed, but your pay-off date is further out and your efforts have become less effective.


The good news, if there is any, is that thus far consumers appear to be keeping up with the bills. Delinquency levels are low relative to history, and the debt-to-income ratio is not exceptionally high.

That could change overnight, however, as the cumulative effects of a more costly everyday life keep banging on our doors.

With that in mind, consumers must refine their spending and hack away at any high-interest debts.

With so few investment products currently holding the promise of double-digit returns, anyone with debt to pay off should consider “investing” into the pay-down as a good return on their money.

Making progress is hard with inflation running north of 8 percent, so write down all debts, track your spending and see where you can make cuts on the expenditures side of the ledger to improve the outlook on what you owe.

The trade-offs can be tough, but consider whether the debt is causing more pain — monetary or emotional — than the spending cutbacks; if so, attack the debt.

Consider refinancing wherever feasible. There are still some available low-rate balance-transfer offers; consider moving credit-card balances, but beware of transfer fees, and of what costs will become if you can’t pay the debt off before the teaser rate expires and the normal rate comes along to kick your butt.

Look at timing any major purchases, and weigh financing options before you head to the store or dealership. Monitor your credit score; the more progress you can make to improve it now, the more it can help you if you need to look for a refinancing deal down the road.