4 signs you're abusing your credit cards

Worried you're charging too much on your credit cards? If any of these credit card warning signs sound familiar it might be time to change your spending habits.

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Are you using your credit cards too much? Even if you're not getting collections calls just yet, that doesn't mean you don't have a problem. If any of these five signs apply to you, it could mean you're relying too much on your credit cards, and you need to do something before the situation gets out of hand.

Your credit score is suffering

The second-largest category of information that makes up your FICO credit score is "amounts owed." This doesn't refer to the actual dollar amounts of your credit card balances as much as it refers to the percentage of your available credit you're using, among other factors.

Lower is obviously better, and experts generally suggest that you limit your total credit card debt to no more than 30% of your available credit. In other words, if you have a combined credit limit of $10,000, you should try to carry no more than $3,000 at any time.

Above this point, your credit score can begin to drop quickly. So, if you monitor your credit regularly (which you should be doing—myFICO.com is my personal favorite service), and begin to see a rapid drop in your scores, it could be a sign that your credit card debt is getting too high.

The minimum payment is all you can afford

Sure, the minimum payment keeps your account current, but that's about all it does. If you owe $6,000 on a credit card at 18% interest, and your minimum payment is $100 per month, it will take you nearly 13 years to pay off the balance. Out of your first $100 monthly payment, $90 will go toward interest and just $10 will go toward the principle. Even worse, you'll end up paying more than $15,000 in all—and that assumes you don't charge any more purchases on the card along the way.

The minimum payment is by no means enough, so if you find you can't afford much more than the minimum amount, that could be a sign that you're abusing your credit cards.

You shuffle the debt around

If you have a habit of transferring balances around, it could be a sign of a problem.

Now, 0% APR balance transfer cards can be great deals, and they can potentially save you thousands in interest changes. However, this becomes ineffective when it becomes a never-ending cycle. If you find yourself transferring a balance to a 0% APR card, only to run the balance up on the original card once again, you could end up in worse trouble than you started with.

Just remember: debt at 0% interest is still debt. Treat it that way.

You're close to your limit(s)

Maxed-out credit cards are bad in several ways. Most obviously, you'll have no available credit if you actually need it. One of the primary reasons to carry a credit card is for emergencies, and by maxing yours out, it eliminates the peace of mind of a readily available credit line.

Also, maxed-out cards are awful for your credit score and can make it much more difficult to obtain other forms of credit if you need it. For example, auto lenders may be reluctant to give you a loan if they feel your credit card debt is becoming unmanageable.

What you can do about it

If you feel like your credit card debt is getting out of control, or is heading in that direction, it's time to make a change. Here are some steps you can take before it's too late.

  1. Stop spending money. This is obvious, but still needs to be said. How can you ever hope to pay off your credit card balances if you keep adding to them?
  2. Consolidate, and leave it alone. Earlier, I mentioned 0% APR balance transfer cards. Move all of your credit card balances to one of these and focus on paying it off. This way, 100% of the money you pay goes to paying down the balance, not to interest.
  3. Ask for a lower rate. If you can't qualify for one of the good balance transfer cards, you may be able to call your credit card company and ask for a lower interest rate. They may say no, but many banks will do it, so it's certainly worth asking. Let them know your payments are becoming unaffordable, but that you're committed to paying it off.
  4. Pay more than you have to. Even though it can be tempting to pay the minimum balance, especially on a 0% APR card where the interest isn't accumulating, now is the time to get aggressive. Even a small increase in the amount you pay can translate to lots of interest savings in the future.

The bottom line is that until your credit card accounts actually get sent to collections, there is still time to do some damage control. Make today the day you finally get a grip on your credit card usage—you'll be glad you did.

Topics:
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  • Financial Planning
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This article was written by Matthew Frankel from The Motley Fool and was licensed as an article reprint from March 28, 2016. Article copyright 2016 by The Motley Fool.
The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. Fidelity Investments cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any statements or data.
This reprint is supplied by Fidelity Brokerage Services LLC, Member NYSE, SIPC.
The third-party provider of the reprint permission and Fidelity Investments are independent entities and not legally affiliated.
The images, graphs, tools, and videos are for illustrative purposes only.
Fidelity Brokerage Services LLC, Member NYSE, SIPC, 900 Salem Street, Smithfield, RI 02917.
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