How Much Credit Card Debt is Too Much?
Three easy measures reveal when you have too much debt.
Credit card debt has a way of creeping up to cause problems. Since credit cards are revolving debt, it means that your minimum payments increase the more you charge. As a result, credit card debt can slowly take over your budget. Minimum payments eat up all your free cash flow and leave you struggling to cover daily expenses.
But the challenge is that it’s not always immediately apparent that you have too much debt. There’s a fine line between staying afloat and sinking fast. So, how much credit card debt is too much and how can you tell that it’s time to focus on debt repayment because you’re overextended?
Ask the Expert: An Easy Way to Tell You Have Too Much Debt
There’s not one numeric answer to the question of how much debt is too much. The threshold of what you can handle depends on your income and situation. But Consolidated Credit’s Financial Education Director April Lewis-Parks explains one easy metric that you can use to assess if your balances are too high.
[On-screen text] Ask the Expert: How much credit card debt is too much?
[April Lewis-Parks, Director of Education, Consolidated Credit] Hi. I’m April Lewis-Parks, Director of Education at Consolidated Credit. Today our question is, “How much debt is too much debt?” And really, at Consolidated Credit, we think any amount of debt is too much.
But ideally you should never spend more than 10% of your take-home pay towards credit card debt. So, for example, if you take home $2,500 a month, you should never pay more than $250 a month towards your credit card bills.
So, take a look at your budget and bank statements and calculate how much money you’re spending monthly to pay down debt. If that amount is greater than 10%, you might have a problem. And you should look into the best way to pay it off quickly and efficiently.
When you use credit, it’s best to pay it off at the end of each billing cycle, and if for some reason you can’t do that, try to pay it off within three months using a credit card with the lowest possible APR.
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3 ways to tell that you have too much credit card debt
There are three simple ratios you can use to asses if you have too much credit card debt:
- Credit utilization ratio shows you when you have so much debt that it’s bad for your credit score.
- Debt-to-income ratio measures when you have too much debt to get approved for new credit.
- Credit card debt ratio tells you when your minimum payments are becoming too much for your budget to handle.
Credit utilization ratio: Too much debt is bad for your credit score
One way to tell you that your credit card balances are too high is when they start to negatively impact your credit score. Credit utilization is the second biggest factor used to calculate your credit score, after credit history. It counts for 30% of the “weight” in your credit score.
Credit utilization = current total balance / total credit limit
If you have three credit cards that each have a limit of $1,000, your total credit limit is $3,000. If you have a $200 balance on each card, your current total balance is $600. So, you divide $600 by $3,000, which equals 0.2; that means your credit utilization ratio is 20%.
A lower credit utilization ratio is always better. In fact, it’s a myth that you need to carry credit card balances to maintain a high credit score. If you pay off your debt in-full every month, it’s the best thing you can do for you credit.
By contrast, it hurts your score when your balances are too high. Anything over 30% credit utilization will decrease your credit score. So, you can use this as a measure of when you have too much debt.
|Total credit limit||Maximum debt that won’t damage your score|
Consolidated Credit offers a free credit card debt worksheet that makes it easy to total up your current balances and total credit limit. Be aware that the 30 percent threshold applies both to your total debt and each account. You want to maintain less than a 30 percent balance on each card and overall.
Debt-to-income ratio: When your debt is so high you get rejected
Debt-to-income ratio (DTI) is the measure that lenders use to decide if you should be approved for a loan. Lenders don’t extend credit to people who already have too much debt. They use DTI to measure i because they don’t want consumers to borrow more than they can afford to pay back.
Debt-to-income = total monthly debt payments / total gross monthly income
Gross monthly income is what you make before your employer takes out taxes and other deductions. You can find gross income listed on your pay stubs. It also includes anything that you’re required to list as income on your tax returns. That includes benefits, Social Security, and child support or alimony payments you receive.
Debt includes any obligation that will take more than 6-10 months to repay. That can include rent or mortgage payments, including property taxes and insurance, auto loans, student loans, credit card payments, personal loans and even in-store credit lines for furniture or electronics.
Most lenders won’t approve you if your debt-to-income ratio is over 45 percent; for smaller lenders, the cutoff can be even lower. So, you want to keep your DTI below 36 percent. That gives you ample room to take on new credit since lenders calculate DTI with potential new payments factored in.
You can also use DTI to tell when you have too much debt because your credit card balances have increased. Loans usually won’t bump you over, because lenders wouldn’t extend you the loan if it drives your ratio too high. Thus, it’s usually credit card debt that puts you over the line.
If your balances get so high that you can’t borrow, you probably need credit card debt relief. Otherwise, if you need to buy a car or move to a new home, you won’t be able to meet those needs.
Credit card debt ratio: When you can’t afford your monthly payments
You don’t want to check your debt-to-income ratio every time you make a few charges. So, there’s an easier ratio you can use to measure when you have too much credit card debt. It’s your credit card debt ratio.
Credit card debt ratio = Total monthly credit card payments / total net monthly income
In general, you never want your minimum credit card payments to exceed 10 percent of your net income. Net income is the amount of income you take home after taxes and other deductions. You use the net income for this ratio because that’s the amount of income you have available to spend on bills and other expenses.
When credit card payments take up too much of your income, it makes it difficult to afford all the things you need to pay for each month. This makes credit card debt ratio the easiest measure of when you have too much credit card debt.
|Net (take-home) income||Highest balance you should carry|
Now, just because your minimum payments are higher than 10%, it doesn’t mean that you’re facing financial distress right now. Ten percent is the safe zone for keeping your overall DTI below 36%.
As your credit card debt ratio gets higher, it becomes tougher and tougher to balance your budget. If you let your ratio get above, it’s likely to cause serious stress to your budget. You may be facing overdrafts, juggling bills, or putting off things like doctor’s appointments or car maintenance. Any of these actions are sure signs you have too much credit card debt.
Take this quiz to assess your debt
More ways to decide if you have too much debt
The unsustainable debt threshold
Credit card debt analysis experts at WalletHub have identified a specific dollar amount of credit card debt that the average American household can carry and still stay afloat. According to those analysts, the maximum amount of credit card debt that a household can hold without risking financial distress is $8,428.
However, keep in mind that this is the maximum sustainable debt for the average American household. Your household is likely to be different, depending on your income and other obligations. That’s why Consolidated Credit uses the 10% monthly payment measurement. This method allows you match your maximum credit card debt threshold to your income.
But let’s look at the maximum threshold to see what it means:
- If you have $8,428 in credit card debt, the required monthly payments would be $206.20. That’s calculated using a standard credit card payment schedule.
- This means you would need to bring home at least $2,062 per month in order to comfortably maintain those payments ($2,062 X 10% = $206.20)
- However, keep in mind that even if you made that a fixed payment amount and paid that every month:
- It would take 62 payments (over 5 years) to eliminate the debt
- You would pay $4,442.56 in total interest charges
Most experts would tell you this is not an efficient or effective debt elimination strategy because it takes too long and costs too much.
The 5-year debt elimination plan
Another measure of too much debt that experts use is often the 5-year threshold. Basically, you should be able to eliminate debt in-full within 5 years or less . This is based on the idea that if it takes longer than five years you aren’t eliminating the debt efficiently. It will also cost too much with total monthly interest charges.
With that in mind, take the following steps to assess your personal credit card debt level. This can help you see if you need help to eliminate debt effectively:
- Use the Credit Card Debt Calculator to see how long it would take to eliminate each credit card debt you have. Assess both minimum payments and what you can comfortably afford to pay.
- Keep in mind that as you focus money to reduce one debt, you need to maintain minimum payments on the others.
- If you can’t make a plan to eliminate your debt within 5 years, then move on to Step 2.
- Evaluate do-it-yourself debt consolidation options
- If you transferred your balances to a balance transfer credit card with a 0% APR introductory period, could you eliminate the total balance before that introductory period ends?
- Failing that, is your credit score high enough that you can qualify for an unsecured personal debt consolidation loan? You would need monthly payments you can afford and a term of 5 years or less.
- If you can’t make either of these DIY options work, then you need help, such as credit counseling
Talk to a certified credit counselor to find the best solution to pay off credit card debt faster.