How to break out of the credit card debt cycle

After paying off credit card debt, evaluate your relationship with plastic to determine whether you need to use it again

When you have to enter credit card information into websites for every online purchase, you will have more time to think a purchase through. Photo: AP
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Upon paying off between $12,000 (Dh44,070) and $15,000 in credit card debt in 2019, Yamiesha Bell, a special-education teacher in New York, didn’t break up with her credit cards.

With goals to buy a car and a house, Ms Bell hoped to preserve her credit history by keeping her cards open and active.

“I needed to sustain my credit to get the interest rates I wanted in the future,” she says.

While credit cards are not ideal for everyone, they can aid your credit journey if used responsibly.

When reconciling with credit cards, you need a personalised stay-out-of-debt plan. Here are a few strategies to consider.

Reflect on spending habits

Maybe you ditched debt, but history can repeat if you don’t unpack the motivations that contributed to it.

A get-out-of-debt plan that works in the short term may not be sustainable over the long term if it doesn’t align with your priorities, says Julia Kramer, a financial behaviour and leadership consultant at Signature Financial Planning in the US.

Ms Kramer suggests tracking transactions dating back a week or more. Add a plus sign next to those purchases you’re willing to repeat and a minus sign next to those you’re not. For obligatory purchases such as petrol and groceries, add an equal sign.

Note the date, the item purchased, the amount and the need the purchase met. Those frequent lattes or meals out with friends may be more about the personal connection experienced, or something else, as opposed to the gratification provided by the item, Ms Kramer adds.

This information is key to identifying areas in your budget that are negotiable. For example, you may be more willing to choose budget-friendly food to keep a facial that meets an internal need for self-care and connection, she says.

If your spending strays upon experiencing feelings such as anxiousness or boredom, make a plan for those occasions. It might mean budgeting extra money or employing tricks such as using a credit card lock feature to prevent spending.

Use cash for certain categories

If you want to reel in spending on categories such as dining out or entertainment, for example, set aside physical cash to stay within budget.

Money in hand can lead to more mindful spending, Ms Kramer says.

Track spending

Create a tracking system that works for you. Setting up spending alerts on a credit card account can notify you if purchases exceed a certain amount.

Tracking spending with a spreadsheet, bullet journal or budgeting app, for instance, can also help with mental accounting.

“I would not open up credit cards if you do not have a system in place where you track spending every month,” Ms Kramer says. “It has to be something that appeals to you that you know you’re going to do.”

For Ms Bell, a cash envelope tracking system helps her manage spending in different categories, including her credit card bill payment.

“When you look in a cash envelope and you see you only have $50, it’s very clear that once that money runs out there’s nothing else I can do,” she says.

Use credit cards for planned purchases only

Ease your way back into credit cards with small planned purchases, such as a subscription service payment.

After paying off debt, Ms Bell only uses credit cards for in-budget purchases and she pays them off in full each month to avoid interest charges.

Initially, she left her credit card at home to avoid relying on it.

Have an emergency fund to fall back on

An emergency fund of even $500 for a car or home repair may keep debt off your credit cards.

Start small and aim, eventually, to cast a wider safety net over time — ideally, three to six months of living expenses stowed in a high-yield savings account.

If you previously got used to budgeting a certain amount each month to pay creditors, keep that momentum going, but direct funds towards savings instead.

Don’t store credit card information on websites or apps

Convenient payment options can sometimes lead to mindless spending.

By entering payment information into forms for every online purchase, you’ll have more time to think through a purchase.

Get an accountability partner

A non-judgemental partner or trusted loved one can offer input on a purchase or a stay-out-of-debt plan.

An accountability partner can be a sounding board who lets you listen out loud to your own justifications for financial decisions.

Update your strategy

As motivations and priorities change, your stay-out-of-debt plan should follow. Continue revisiting credit card statements to identify the needs that are being met by purchases and which are most important.

If in this process, you continue having frequent run-ins with debt, consider closing credit card accounts even if it can negatively impact credit scores.

“A big thing about this is knowing yourself and knowing what your challenge areas are and finding ways that work around them,” Ms Bell says.

“Five years from now, it might look different, but for right now that’s what works.”

Updated: April 20, 2022, 4:00 AM