Warning Signs of Debt: Ask These 4 Questions

The easiest way to deal with credit card debt? Spot the warning signs of debt before you’re buried under a heap of loan balances.

Here are some common indications that you could be destined for credit card debt, based on your personality type and financial habits, along with some tips to help rewrite your financial fate.

Do you compare what you have to others?

Scientists call it social comparison; pop culture lingo calls it “keeping up with the Joneses.”

Whatever term you use, spending in pursuit of social acceptance or a for a sense of enhanced social value is one of the most common warning signs of debt.

If you tend to make these types of purchases, The Financial Times recommends you take a hard look at your monthly credit card and bank statements. Identify what you spent based on impulse, total it and calculate what those purchases really cost, once you account for interest rate charges you may have paid for balances you didn’t pay in full.

In addition to those costs, remember that every dollar you spend to keep up with someone else means passing up on an opportunity to grow your money in a savings, investment or retirement account instead.

Researchers have found that consumers were willing to spend $175 on the food for a Thanksgiving gathering when using credit cards, but when using cash, were willing to spend $145. 1

Are you highly social?

When scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) studied couples and their spending habits, they found that those who were highly social were more likely to overspend on activities like dining out, drinks and entertainment; their spending was especially pronounced when both people in the relationship were extroverted.

Though you don’t have to squash your social butterfly tendencies to avoid credit card debt, the research does underscore the need to have a budget that reflects your values.

Dedicate a realistic amount in your monthly budget to support your desire for a social lifestyle, but recognize that may mean you need to spend a little less in other areas to ensure your on-the-go lifestyle doesn’t lead to credit card debt.

Do you tend to be impulsive?

As reported in The New York Times, the relative ease of buying with “plastic” not only contributes to impulse buying but also raises the amount of money spent on a given purchase when paying by credit card rather than by cash. As M.I.T. marketing professor Duncan Simester shared with the Times, “When you vary the payment method, people are willing to pay more.”

This tendency to overspend when using a credit card rather than cash is well documented. Two contributing factors are the resulting ease of the transaction and the relative “distance” that’s placed between the purchaser and the purchase: When paying with cash, you must have that amount with you; with a credit card, you have the option of coming up with that cash later.

And it is yet to be seen how the introduction of mobile wallet and smartphone transactions – by creating even more ease and distance – may further affect consumer behavior.

Do you avoid managing your finances?

The Financial Times says feeling uncomfortable or fearful about money can also be a warning sign of debt, even if you’re frugal: When you don’t face your financial facts, you simply can’t know how your income stacks up to what you owe.

If you avoid opening credit card statements because you don’t want to see your total balances, or resist making a budget entirely, claim your financial empowerment before you’re struggling with credit card debt long term.

Start with small goals: Log into your online bank and credit card accounts each day and commit to knowing where you stand. Set a small and tangible milestone that makes it easy to see your progress, such as eliminating your smallest debt— or the one with the highest interest rate — or opening a savings account that you’ll contribute to every pay period.

The more you set budgetary goals and achieve them, the more confident you’ll become in facing your financial reality — and shaping it for the future you want. If you’re noticing the warning signs of debt, consider debt consolidation options to help you set a plan to tackle it.

Legal Disclaimer: This site is for educational purposes and is not a substitute for professional advice. The material on this site is not intended to provide legal, investment, or financial advice and does not indicate the availability of any Discover product or service. It does not guarantee that Discover offers or endorses a product or service. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, you may wish to consult a qualified professional.

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