Some people like to joke about taking things to the limit, but when it comes to your credit, maxing out a credit card is no laughing matter.
Maxing out a credit card means swiping until you reach the card’s credit limit, or the total amount of credit extended to you. And that’s bad news for your credit scores because your debt utilization ratio (e.g., how much debt you have versus your total available credit) is one of the key factors credit agencies use to determine your score. Bump up against that limit, and your score will take a hit.
Debt levels are another factor that go into your score. Carry too much, and you’ll send a red flag to lenders that you’re in over your head; slack off on a few bills, and they’ll begin to think you can’t manage your payments responsibly.
We spoke with a few Credit.com readers who learned the hard way about the dangers of maxing out credit cards. While they aren’t proud of what they did, they came out stronger for their experience and took steps necessary to get their finances back in order. (Note: At their request, some names and locations have been withheld to protect readers’ privacy.)
‘I Maxed Out Seven Cards’
Between 2006 and 2008, Steven M. Hughes was saddled with a lot of debt. “I maxed out seven cards in my freshman year alone,” he said via email, “two more as a young professional.” The problem was he didn’t understand how to use them. “My parents always told me to stay away from them and didn’t teach me how to manage them properly,” he said.
“I had one credit card for emergencies that I maxed out on car repairs for a car at the time. I had department store cards that I maxed out on clothes for school and work because I worked while I was in college. I had a card I maxed out going to a family member’s wedding in New York City. I started assigning jobs to each card, but I didn’t have the income to pay them off, and paying the minimum balance wasn’t cutting it. All but one card was charged off. I managed to pay the lone card off and start a new account with the creditor.”
Today, the Columbia, South Carolina, resident teaches millennials how to manage their money through his nonprofit, Know Money, Inc. “After making all the financial mistakes, I started to learn as much as possible about personal finance,” he said.
‘I Was Into Wearing Ralph Lauren’
Deborah Sawyerr, a fashion and lifestyle blogger based in London, was about 32 when she visited Woodbury Common Premium Outlet, in Central Valley, New York, during a family holiday in 2005. “We bought clothes, shoes, suits, my daughter some bits, belts, jackets and some gifts,” she recalled via email. “At the time, I was into wearing Ralph Lauren clothing, so most of my spend went on this particular brand.”
Her credit card balance at the time was pretty low, but she admits she went a bit overboard that trip, racking up roughly $5,000. “As luck would have it, at the same time, my employer had just paid me in excess of £5,000, or thereabouts, as a redundancy package,” she said. “I basically — and perhaps I wasn’t so naïve — used the entire redundancy package to clear the debt in one go.” Humbled by the experience, Sawyerr said she hasn’t maxed out a credit card since.
‘I Knew Very Little About Money’
In 1997, John Schmoll, Jr. was an undergrad with four maxed out credit cards totaling a whopping debt of $25,000. “When I went to college, I knew very little about money and was enticed to sign up for credit cards out of the promise of some sort of free swag — T-shirt, Frisbee, you name it,” he wrote in an email. “I ended up signing up for four credit cards this way, and used them to finance a lifestyle that I wanted but could not afford.”
Teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, at a roommate’s urging Schmoll decided to meet with a debt counselor, who helped him lower the rates on his cards. From there, he set up a budget, which enabled him to pay the cards off five years later. “That changed my life forever and put me on the path I am today, working toward financial independence,” he said. Today, the Omaha-based father and finance industry veteran blogs at Frugal Rates about what he’s learned.
‘0% Offers Were Appealing’
Years ago, Lisa, a marketing strategist, found that the 0% promotional APR offers from credit card issuers “were appealing.”
“I had six credit cards, all with a little over $3,000 on them,” Lisa said in an email. “I consolidated them into one account, maxing out that card, and I paid it off in about two years.”
So what got her there in the first place? Overspending. “I was floored to find out how liberal I’d been with spending — luxury items, travel to the Maui Writer’s Conference, etc.,” she said. “I behave very differently now.”
For starters, she said she doesn’t keep a revolving balance, and diligently pays her balances off every month. “That way, there’s no surprise debt, no interest charges, no late fees, etc.,” she said.
If you have reason to believe your spending’s out of control and it’s affecting your credit, you can read up on these tips to build credit the smart way and view your free credit report summary on Credit.com to see what you may want to improve.