MADELEINE BRAND, host:
If you don't have a home mortgage - and even if you do - there's a good chance your big credit headache is plastic in nature. Americans are big fans of credit card - not such big fans of the debt that goes with them.
Revolving credit debt here in the U.S. totals $943 billion, most of that from credit cards. That's from 700 million credit cards. Eighty percent of all American households use plastic for everything from leather boots to big screen TVs to just getting by on groceries each month. And though half of them do pay their bill in full each month, the half that doesn't has an average balance of $2,200.
American weren't always like this. Back in the 1970s, there may have been some Saturday Night Fever, but not such a fever to spend. A full half of all American households said they did not even have a credit card back then. Today, only 10 percent of us are saying no to plastic. And that's probably a good idea.
Let's say you carry a $5,000 debt. If you pay 15 percent interest and only fork over the minimum payment each month, it'll take you - get this - 22 years and two months to pay that $5,000 off. A lot of people are having trouble paying off their credit card bills, and that's because even while the Federal Reserve is cutting interest rates, some credit card companies are jacking up their rates.
One person who experienced that first-hand is Jennifer Campion. We reached her earlier today at her home in Chandler, Arizona.
Ms. JENNIFER CAMPION: In December, I had a little issue with the Chase Bank. I was one day just at Starbuck's, didn't have any cash on me, and I went to purchase a cup of coffee and it was declined.
Of course after the embarrassment and humiliation, I, when I got home, went online to look at my account and I noticed that they had turned off my charging privileges and that it was because of a $3.77 apparently that I owed. That's what my balance was on the card, $3.77.
BRAND: And you didn't know that you had that balance?
Ms. CAMPION: Well, I knew I had the balance, but I guess when it went to make payment on it - I had just put in a brand-new bank account - and apparently I made a mistake with my bank account numbers. And when they went to withdraw the money - the $3.77 - from the bank account it got declined because it was the wrong account number. And then I noticed that my $5,000 credit limit got reduced down to $500. And then I went and looked at my interest rate and they put it up - I think it was right around 14.9 and they raised it to 29.99 percent.
BRAND: So 30 percent interest rate?
Ms. CAMPION: Basically, yes. Yep.
BRAND: So, now how much credit card debt do you have?
Ms. CAMPION: I have a lot of different credit cards with many different companies. And I was really shocked when I finally put it all on paper. When you have little amounts spread out over many cards you don't realize until you actually sit down with a spreadsheet, put them in and look at the balance. And at that point it was about $20,000.
And I said, okay. This is it. I'm done. And I started looking at some of the interest rates. I started paying attention. And sure enough, other companies had raised my rates as well. One of those companies was American Express. And when I called to inquire why they did it, they said it - I have, you know, a great history with them, no problems with them at all. But they're monitoring my credit report and they noticed that Chase reduced my limit. And so at that point that prompted them to not only reduce my limits but to raise my rate as well.
And so I'm now completely on a mission. I'm at war with all the credit card companies. And I've already paid down about, oh, I would say about $7,000 of the debt. And I have my federal return coming and I will be paying the rest, you know, as soon as possible.
BRAND: So if you had any words of advice, what would you say to people who find themselves in this...
Ms. CAMPION: Just don't spend beyond your limit. I mean, I'm - at this point I'm still against the whole credit card industry. I really took a look at my lifestyle and realized that, you know, in America we're so - we're in this instant gratification mode. And we want things right then. And I don't charge anything on my credit cards at this point. It's five weeks now. It's been five weeks. I just refuse to do it. So...
BRAND: So you quit cold turkey?
Ms. CAMPION: I definitely have learned my lesson.
BRAND: Jennifer Campion of Chandler, Arizona. Thank you for speaking with us today.
Ms. CAMPION: Sure. Take care.
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BRAND: Coming up on the program, our personal finance expert Michelle Singletary on what you should do with that government check you're about to get as part of the economic stimulus package. Here's a hint: don't do what the government wants you to do. Don't even look at that pair of boots.
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BRAND: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.
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