The Average American's Credit Card Debt May Shock You

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The average American has $3,600 in credit card debt, but that number doesn't tell the whole story. Some Americans have no credit card debt at all, and some have credit card debt, but don't carry a balance. Here are a couple of shocking statistics about Americans' credit card debt, and what to do if you have too much.

The average American has how much credit card debt?

I already mentioned that the average American's credit card debt is $3,600, but that figure is deceptively low. More than 60% of households carry no credit card debt whatsoever, and of those that do, many pay it in full every month.

Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Federal Reserve, ValuePenguin found that the average credit card debt for households that carry a balance is a shocking $16,048 -- a figure that has risen by 10% over the past three years. At the average variable credit card interest rate of 16.1%, this translates to nearly $2,600 in credit card interest alone. And many credit cards have interest rates much higher than the average.

Even scarier, consider that based on the average interest rate and a minimum payment of 1.5% of the balance, it would take nearly 14 years for the typical indebted household to pay off its existing credit card debt, at a staggering cost of more than $40,200. Keep in mind that this assumes no additional credit card debt is added to the tab along the way.

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To be fair, it's worth mentioning that not all of this credit card debt is the high-interest variety. Many people take advantage of 0% introductory APRs as a cheap way of consolidating debt or financing a big purchase. There is a big difference between $10,000 of credit card debt at 0% interest and $10,000 of debt at 20% interest.

High debt isn't necessarily bad if it's justified by income. For example, if you have $25,000 in credit card debt, but earn $200,000 per year, it may not feel like a huge burden. On the other hand, if you have $5,000 in credit card debt but earn $28,000 per year, you may feel like you're drowning.

The people who can't afford it have the most

Another shocking finding of the ValuePenguin study was that the households in the worst financial shape have the highest credit card debt. We already know that the average credit card debt among all U.S. households is about $5,700.

Unfortunately, households with negative or zero net worth have the most credit card debt among all categories -- and by a significant margin. The average negative- or zero-net-worth household carries credit card debt of $10,307. This is 27% more than the next highest group -- households with net worth of $500,000 or more.

Household Net Worth

Average Credit Card Debt

Negative or Zero
















$500,000 and above


Source: ValuePenguin

If you have too much credit card debt

Whether your credit card debt is above- or below-average, here are some steps you can take if you are feeling overwhelmed:

1. Stop using your credit cards. This is obvious, but still worth mentioning. Try only buying things with cash or debit cards until your debt is under control.

2. Take advantage of a 0% offer. Competition among credit card issuers has never been higher, which is a good thing for you. There are 0% introductory APR offers of up to 21 months in duration, and some even have no balance transfer fees. The Chase Slate and Citi Simplicity are two good ones to look at. This way, the money you're paying will go toward paying down the principle, not the interest.

3. Negotiate with your creditors. If you can't qualify for a 0% offer, call your current card issuers and ask for a lower rate. Let them know your payments are unaffordable, but you're committed to paying what you owe. The worst they can say is no, and you may be surprised at how willing they are to work with you. After all, if they end up having to send your account to collections, it's a lose-lose situation.

4. Pay down your balance aggressively. Once your interest rate situation is under control, take advantage. Pay down as much as possible -- even a small increase in payment could add up.

The bottom line is that while the average credit card debt is $5,700, or $16,048 for households with balances, your comfortable debt threshold might be significantly higher or lower than that amount. If you're feeling over-burdened by credit card debt, there's no better time to do some damage control then right now.

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Matthew Frankel has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.