While it is a positive sign that consumers are gaining more confidence in the economy as their discretionary income is accumulating due to lower gasoline prices, tax refunds and an improving labor market, managing their debt levels remain crucial.
One in five Americans said they are spending more in 2015 compared to last year, according to a recent National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) poll. This sentiment is also reflected in an April Gallup poll that demonstrated that Americans spent $91 daily in April, the highest April average since Gallup Daily tracking began in 2008 and is also an increase from $86 in March. Gallup asks consumers each day what they spent the day before in gas stations, stores, restaurants and online to gauge the amount of their discretionary spending, which excludes mortgages, rent, car loans or static monthly bills such as cell phone or utilities.
Americans Across the Board Are Purchasing More
Spending increased in all income groups, as lower income and middle class Americans whose households earn less than $90,000 annually spent an average of $77 daily while upper-income households spent an average of $160, according to the report.
“This year's stronger spending in March and April may provide evidence that the flat GDP the government reported for the first quarter of 2015 was more of a temporary, weather-related situation than a sign of trouble for the economy,” said Gallup analyst Rebecca Riffkin in the report.
Yet the zeal Americans feel could be misguided, since the NFCC survey showed that 60% are spending without a budget and 70% are currently worried about their personal finances.
“Spending increases are fine if they are planned as a part of a balanced budget,” said Bruce McClary, spokesman for the NFCC. “Spending more money becomes a problem when it’s the result of impulsive behavior or lack of planning.”
Pay Off Credit Card Balances To Maintain Budget
Some consumers have a good handle on their spending and are paying off their credit card debt judiciously each month as the number of Americans who have a balance of $2,500 or less have increased from 18% in 2014 to 22% in 2015. This is an indicator that people who do not pay their balances in full are doing better at reducing the amount they carry, he said.
“This is a positive sign among those carrying balances, because they were more likely to carry higher amounts in the past,” McClary said. “The ultimate goal should be eliminating balances before interest starts to accrue.”
Other Americans are facing more troubling issues, as 24% are not paying their bills on time, only 49% pay off their balances each month and more people are getting cash advances this year. Cash advances are the “worst way to borrow money from a line of credit and should be avoided if at all possible,” he said.
Higher interest rates are typically applied to cash advances, and consumers must pay transaction fees of 3% to 5% of the amount borrowed. The interest begins accruing as soon as the transaction is complete.
When consumers increase their spending habits, that amount should also be complemented by at least an equal or greater increase in savings, he said.
Getting control of your debt can be accomplished simply when you set up a budget by tracking all your spending for a month -- looking for ways to trim expenses and build savings -- then following your findings the next month, McClary said.
Eliminating debt is the “only ticket to financial freedom,” said Kevin Gallegos, vice president of the Phoenix operations for Freedom Financial Network, a consumer debt resolution company. Living within your means is the best bet.
“Learning how to distinguish between needs and wants has to be at the top of consumers' priorities for managing finances to stay out of debt,” he said.
Pay off your debt by using either the avalanche or the snowball method to stay on track. The avalanche method involves paying off your credit cards in the order of highest interest rate to lowest while the snowball method tackles paying off the lowest amount of debt first.
“To be effective, both strategies require you to continue paying the same monthly amount toward your debt until all debts have been paid off,” Gallegos said. “Once one credit card has been paid off, don’t reduce how much you pay toward your overall debt. Keep paying the same monthly amount or increase the amount if you can afford it. You’ll get out of debt faster and reduce the total cost of your debt.”
--Written by Ellen Chang for MainStreet