What Americans Are Willing to Go Into Credit Card Debt For

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More than half of all Americans have, at one time or another, owed money to a credit card issuer. An even larger proportion — 86% — have regretted it. The moral of the story is if you’re going to run up credit card debt, do it for a good reason.

A recent survey of more than 2,000 Americans by researchers at NerdWallet found that there are some things that people are willing to put on their cards and pay off over time. Even though 86% of those who have had credit card debt regret it, nearly three-quarters (71%) of Americans say they would be willing to go into debt to pay for certain things.

By age group, among millennials who have or have had credit card debt 91% regret it. Among GenXers, the percentage who regret it is 89% and among baby boomers the percentage is 81%. GenXers and boomers most regret it because of the interest charges, while millennials most regret it because of the negative effect on their credit scores.

About two-thirds of respondents say they have overspent on their credit cards. The top reason for spending, cited by 28% of people, is not having enough savings or cash to pay for what they wanted. Another 25% said they overspent on impulse purchases.

So, for what items do Americans think it is worth going into credit card debt? Tops on the list (45%) are emergency medical expenses. About a third (32%) say they would go into debt to pay for necessities they can’t cover with their incomes. Both are reasonable, if not ideal.

But here are the top five reasons Americans would be willing to assume credit card debt.

A major life event (e.g., wedding, birth of child). A full third of Americans would be willing to use credit card debt to meet these expenses. NerdWallet suggests that in most cases you have control of the timing of this type of expense and that it is better to save in advance or lower your expectations.

Planned medical expenses. Nearly a fifth (19%) of respondents were willing to go into debt to pay for expenses such as regular appointments (physical exams, regular tests, teeth cleaning and the like). NerdWallet suggests other options such as funding a health savings account or arranging for a flexible spending account.

A dream vacation. One-sixth of those surveyed say they’d be willing to go into credit card debt to fund a dream vacation. NerdWallet’s comment: “But since the link between debt and regret is so strong, consider saving up beforehand, so when you get home you’ll have only vacation memories, not vacation bills.”

Gifts. According to the survey, 14% of Americans are willing to go into debt to pay for gifts. But this is really non-essential spending, and even though the motives are laudable, spending money you don’t have even for someone else is not recommended.

Dining out on special occasions. Some 12% of Americans are willing to take on credit card debt to celebrate special occasions, like a promotion or a birthday or a wedding anniversary. Again, this sort of spending is nonessential and celebrating a special occasion doesn’t need to be expensive. Look at it this way: unless you drink enough wine to know the difference between a $20 bottle and a $200 bottle, the only thing special about the more expensive wine is that it costs more than you should pay.

For more data and details on the psychology of debt, visit the NerdWallet website.