Sometimes it seems like all everyone can talk about is student loans. It makes sense when more than 44 million Americans collectively hold nearly $1.5 trillion in student debt. The average student loan borrower has $37,172 in student loans, which is a $20,000 increase from 13 years ago.
What we aren’t talking about as often is credit card debt. Consumer debt recently exceeded $4 trillion for the first time, according to the Federal Reserve. The average American has a credit card balance of $4,293 and 1 in 3 people are afraid they’ll max out their credit cards when they make a large purchase (and most defined “large” as anything over $100).
Although research shows that young people are hesitant to take on credit card debt, one survey found that there are actually more older millennials who have outstanding credit card debt than have student loan debt. Millennials are also more likely to take out personal loans, which can be used for anything from consolidating existing debt to paying for a vacation or a wedding.
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You might be thinking: Millennials can’t avoid student loan debt and a college education is worth it, but it’s downright irresponsible to take on so much credit card debt. Young people just don’t understand how credit works, or they don’t care.
The reality for many millennials with credit card debt is very different — I know, I used to be one of them.
I still remember how I felt when I picked up my mail from the box downstairs in our on-campus apartment my junior year and found my first offer to apply for a credit card, a Discover student card. I was both excited at the opportunity to manage my financial future and terrified that I would wind up trapped in a pile of debt I could never dig myself out of.
I knew that credit cards should always be used responsibly — that you should never spend money you don’t have, that it made the most sense to pay off your balance in full before the due date every month, that racking up debt could seriously damage my credit score. I also knew that in the first two years of college, I’d had to borrow money from friends more times than I could count because I needed textbooks or a bus ticket home when we were required to leave campus for breaks.
So I applied for the credit card, and within days I was approved and had a $500 credit line.
At first, I tried to manage the card responsibly, following the financial advice my dad gave me that he’d never had enough financial freedom to follow himself. I didn’t want to pay more money for items because I’d accumulated a bunch of interest. I would go to the mall with my roommates on the weekend and resist the urge to splurge on new clothes with money I didn’t have in cash or in my bank account. But it’s also exhausting constantly denying yourself happiness when you’re poor, so there were occasional times when I pulled out a credit card, like when we all went out to Japanese food to celebrate my roommate’s 20th birthday.
As I spent small amounts and paid them off quickly, Discover increased my available credit to $1,000 and sent me a free report showing that my score had improved. I remember thinking, maybe everything will be okay after all.
Then I went home for five weeks for winter break and found out my dad and I were in danger of having our heat, electricity, and internet shut off. We both pleaded with representatives on the phone to put us on a payment plan to no avail. He was a night shift cab driver who was having trouble working due to his disabilities, and he’d already been making significantly less money per month than he did before the recession because people couldn’t afford to take cabs anymore.
“I’ll pay the bills if you can pay me back at least some of it,” I offered. At school, I was living off a stipend thanks to grants and scholarships. I also had two on-campus tutoring jobs that paid a little more than minimum wage in Massachusetts, which gave me enough spending money to put gas in my car and pay my phone bill each month.
We needed heat through the winter, and I needed the internet to research summer jobs and internships and get started on my senior thesis. I paid our bills with my credit card and cringed when I saw my available credit start to disappear. One study found that 1 in 5 millennials are helping to financially support their aging parents, and giving their parents an average of $18,250 a year. One third of that financial assistance goes toward living expenses such as food and housing.
The reality is that being poor is expensive. Every time I’d just about caught up with the latest round of credit card charges — $150 here for an emergency car repair on my 1998 Buick Century, $50 there on a book that the professor didn’t put on the syllabus before the semester started, $200 to pay off overdue bills to help my dad — something else would come up.
And then, during the fall of my senior year, my dad suffered from a traumatic brain injury during an on-the-job car accident. While it had been difficult for him to work before, now it was nearly impossible. As a cab driver, he was an independent contractor, not an employee, so he didn’t have any of the protections employees can get, like paid medical leave or unemployment benefits. If he couldn’t work, he simply wasn’t paid. The meager stipend and part-time jobs I had weren’t enough to keep us both afloat in an emergency.
The credit card charges mounted. When things were getting really desperate and our heat was about to be turned off in the middle of winter again, I even applied for a predatory payday loan online. I was denied because my credit score had dropped thanks to my high balances. I sat in my bed, covered in as many blankets as possible, wondering how cold the apartment would get if we didn’t have heat. Eventually, after searching the internet, I found another scammy credit card company that would give me a credit line of $400 in minutes with an APR of 29.9 percent.
By the time I’d become too untrustworthy to qualify for another line of credit, I had almost $5,000 in credit card debt across six cards and no plans to pay it off. My highest interest rate was 30.49 percent. I barely survived my senior year of college and first year after graduation, making only the $25 and $35 minimum payments on each card respectively.
I was only able to start tackling my debt when I began working full-time and freelancing on the side. I was really fortunate that I lived with my partner, so we shared bills and expenses and helped each other out during tough financial situations. She graduated with more student debt than I did, including a couple of private loans, so our priorities were paying off her highest interest student loans and my predatory credit cards as soon as possible. She also understood my frustration with credit, as she fell into a similar trap with her credit card after she was suddenly laid off from her first post-college job.
With our two incomes, we finally had enough for necessities with some to spare. Every month, I would throw more than the minimum payment at my credit cards, starting with those with the highest interest rates and balances. Whenever I had an unexpected amount of money, like if I got more well-paying freelance work that month or I received a bonus at work, I’d funnel $200-500 into paying off another card.
In December 2018, I sent in the last payment to the first credit card I opened from Discover back in 2013. With that payment, I’d paid off all my credit cards in full. I never thought I’d sign in and see a $0 balance due again; I no longer have to worry about years of interest fees piling up on what was originally a $50 purchase. My credit score also improved (although marginally) and I’m finally in the average bracket instead of poor, an assessment that feels even more ironic when I think about the fact that I’ve been poor my entire life and I’m only now just catching up to middle class.
I’m still a little scared to use my credit cards now, even responsibly. Last month at the checkout at Target, I used my store credit card for the first time in years, saving 5 percent off my total purchase. When the balance popped up in my account in a few days, I paid it in full 10 days before the due date.