A credit card can be a valuable tool. It can also be a huge financial burden. Credit cards have led millions of Americans into an unsustainable cycle of uncontrolled spending and high-interest debt. If your cards are maxed out, you’re routinely carrying a balance, or you’re using your cards for impulse spending, it’s time to stop using credit cards, at least until you get your finances under control.
That may sound impossible, but it’s not. Here’s how you can do it.
Admit that You Have a Problem with Overspending
You aren’t alone. The average consumer debt in the U.S. is $92,727. As of the third quarter of 2022, the total outstanding credit card debt topped $925 billion.
Amid rising inflation, higher costs of living and stagnant wages, more than 60% of families live paycheck to paycheck, and 51% of people who earn more than $100,000 a year say they’re struggling to make ends meet.
Easy access to lines of credit makes it easy for everyone to spend more than they should. But you can break the cycle. Here are eight tips and tricks to stop using credit cards.
Pro tip: Not everyone needs to stop using credit cards. If you’re paying your balance in full before the due date every month and keeping your credit utilization low, you don’t have a problem. If you do have a problem, it’s time to face it and solve it. The first step is to stop using credit cards.
1. Make Your Credit Cards Difficult to Access
If you want to stop using credit cards, stop carrying them. This is particularly important if you have a problem with impulse spending. Stick your card in the back of a drawer, tuck it in a closet, or freeze it in a block of ice if you like, just don’t keep it in your wallet!
If you have your card details saved on your computer or phone, delete them to get online impulse buys under control. The extra time it takes for you to enter your credit card information for each online purchase gives you time to consider whether you truly need the item.
Pro tip: If you’re one of the 27% of Americans with no emergency fund, it’s important to keep at least one credit card account open in case of an emergency, so you don’t have to use a high-interest payday loan. Using a card for an emergency car repair is a responsible use of credit, particularly if you need the vehicle to get to work.
2. Track Your Spending
Tracking your spending is a basic principle of financial management. If you know what you’re spending and where it’s going, you can pick out the expenses that aren’t clearly necessary and calculate how much they are really costing you. That will help you stop using your credit cards.
Carefully review your statements and note the total amount of interest you’re paying each month. You may be shocked by how quickly it adds up, and it will give you the incentive to pay down your cards.
READ MORE: Signs your credit card debt is out of control
3. Build a Budget and Prepare to Sacrifice
A realistic budget is a huge step forward if you want to stop using credit cards. A budget helps you anticipate what you will spend and when. When you know where your money is going, you can decide which expenses you want to pay with a debit card and which you want to pay with cash. You’re much less likely to face those surprises that lead you to whip out the credit card.
An effective budget has to be realistic. If you’re tracking your spending (as you should be) you have the basis for a budget in your spending records. Analyze your spending and see what you can cut. If you’ve gotten yourself in a hole with excessive credit card spending you may need to make some sacrifices, but paying those balances off and getting the interest burden off your back is worth it!
4. Request Lower Credit Limits
A high credit limit can encourage spending. Knowing that you have that limit there and space to spend before you reach it can drag you into purchases you would not otherwise make. If you catch yourself falling into that trap, consider calling your card issuer and asking them to lower your limit.
The best time to do this is after you pay off a balance. If you ask for a limit reduction while you are carrying a balance your credit utilization ratio will rise, which could harm your credit. Try to keep your balance below 30% of your limit. Lower is even better!
READ MORE: Current balance vs. available credit
5. Use Cash
Research has repeatedly proven that people spend more when they use credit cards than they do when they use cash. Handing over actual money makes us think twice. Swiping is just easier: it doesn’t feel real until the bills come, which they always do.
Consider withdrawing the amount of cash you plan to use in a given period, then leaving the house every day with only the amount you want to spend that day. Leave the card at home!
To learn more about how to make an all-cash budget, check out this video:
6. Check Your Credit Report
Your credit report is a financial report card. Reviewing it in detail will give you an accurate picture of your financial situation. If that picture isn’t what you want to see that’s a good reason to do something about it!
Look closely at your credit card tradelines. If you are carrying large balances, you need to pay them off. That’s additional motivation to stop using credit cards: it’s hard to put a fire out if you keep putting new fuel on it.
There are other reasons to review your credit reports regularly. You may spot early signs of identity theft: if there’s a record on your report that you don’t recognize, check it immediately! Many credit reports have errors. You can dispute credit report errors and have them removed from your credit report.
Pro tip: You can access your credit reports from all three major credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion) for free at annualcreditreport.com.
7. Negotiate with the Credit Card Company
If you’re buried in credit card debt, start by talking to your credit card issuers. Explain why you’re having difficulties making your credit card payments. Ask them to reduce your interest rate and waive late fees. Lenders have no obligation to give you what you ask for, but they might be willing to give you a break, especially if you have a good previous payment record. It can’t hurt to ask!
READ MORE: The best debt settlement companies if you are overwhelmed with credit card debt
8. Apply for a Balance Transfer Credit Card
A new credit card seems like a strange solution to a credit card debt problem, but it can be an effective way to consolidate credit card debts. Balance transfer cards offer an extended interest-free promotional period. You move your balances to the new card, pay them off within the interest-free period, and get that interest off your back.
Be sure that you can pay off your debt before the interest-free period ends, and do not miss a payment. Many issuers will cancel the interest-free promotion if you make even one late payment. The credit limit on the new card will add to your total limit and reduce your credit utilization.
Pro tip: Once you’ve transferred your balances onto the new card, link it to your bank account and set up autopay to make your credit card bill’s minimum payment. You don’t want to lose the promotional offer by forgetting to make a payment.
The best credit cards for balance transfers usually require at least a good credit score, so this is an option if your credit is still relatively good.
READ MORE: Best balance-transfer credit cards
Accept that Your Credit Card Use is a Problem
The first step to breaking the credit card habit is accepting that you have a problem. Excessive credit card debt can make financial stability almost impossible. It can drain incomes, ruin relationships, crush opportunities, generate stress, and even drive you into bankruptcy. If you’re on that road you need to get off it as soon as possible.
The credit card company is not your friend. They want you to spend more than you can afford to pay. They want you to carry a balance from month to month and pay that interest rate. They want you to make late payments and run up fees. That’s how they make money, and they have all kinds of incentives designed to pull you into those patterns.
Understanding how to stop using your credit cards will require you to take accountability for your personal finance. This will not be an easy habit to break, but the first thing to do is stop using them altogether. Yes, there are some advantages to using credit cards: rewards credit cards offer cashback bonuses and other perks, and many cards offer purchase protection.
But the goal of a credit card company is to make money, and they are making money off your spending habits.
READ MORE: How much credit card debt is too much?
You Don’t Need to Close Your Accounts
There’s no need to cancel a credit card you aren’t using unless you feel it’s the only way to avoid the temptation to overspend, particularly if the card has no annual fee. Keeping the card open keeps an active account on your credit record and the credit limit on the card will help you keep your credit utilization rate down.
If your card has an annual fee, you might be better off closing it.
Credit card companies will close an account if it is dormant for too long (usually over a year). If you want to keep a card open, consider putting a small recurring charge on the card, like your internet bill or Netflix subscription. Set up an automatic transfer from your checking account to pay it. The account will stay active, your credit utilization will be low, and the payments will be made on time.
Pro tip: Even if you aren’t actively using a card, be sure to keep checking every statement. You may spot recurring charges that you didn’t know you were paying, like a subscription you forgot to cancel, and you could spot erroneous or fraudulent charges.
Advantages of Credit Cards
There are real advantages to using credit cards. They protect against fraud and they are less vulnerable to theft than cash. A credit card can help you build your credit record and you can earn rewards for routine spending.
These advantages are significant but only meaningful if you have the knowledge and discipline to use your cards wisely. Credit cards also pose a huge temptation, and millions of Americans have been lured into taking on high levels of credit card debt.
Credit cards will also help you establish a credit history, which will be important when you need to make a significant purchase, like a house or a car.
Pro tip: If you’re struggling with credit card debt, stop using cards until you’ve gotten your debts under control. Whether you choose to start using them again is a question you’ll have to decide for yourself, weighing the advantages against the risks.
If You Can’t Pay Your Bills Without Credit Cards…
If something goes wrong and you run out of money before your next paycheck, using a credit card is better than resorting to a payday loan or title loan. That can be a valid reason to keep a credit card around.
Pro tip: Be careful, though. Anyone can run short occasionally, especially if you have an unexpected expense. If you’re relying on a credit card to cover a cash shortfall regularly, there’s something wrong.
If your salary doesn’t cover your daily expenses, you need to reassess your budget and see where to cut back. Consider working more hours or taking on a side hustle. If debt payments are eating up too much of your cash, talk to a credit counselor and consider a debt management plan. Federal and state assistance programs can help you cover food expenses, help with electric bills, and bridge other gaps.
READ MORE: Need help now? How to get assistance
Other Options to Get Out Of Credit Card Debt
If you’re struggling with credit card debt, stopping your credit use is the first step. It might not be enough. Here are some strategies that can help.
- Debt consolidation: If your credit is still reasonably good, you can get a personal loan at a lower interest rate than you’re paying on your cards. Use that to pay off the cards, then focus on paying off the personal loan.
- Try a debt management plan: Nonprofit credit counseling agencies provide these plans. You’ll make one payment a month to the agency. They will pay your creditors and negotiate better terms. This is a good option if your credit score won’t allow you to get a balance transfer card or an affordable personal loan.
- Debt settlement: If you have more debt than you can pay, debt settlement can negotiate the amount down. The process can seriously damage your credit, expose you to aggressive debt collection methods, or get you sued, but it can also resolve your debts.
- Bankruptcy: This should only be considered as a last resort, but if you owe more than you can possibly pay it will wipe the slate clean and give you a fresh start.
All of these methods have one thing in common. They are only effective if you stop using credit cards. You can’t get out of debt if you keep piling new debt on.
READ MORE: Debt settlement vs. debt consolidation
The Bottom Line
If you’re struggling with credit card debt, you need to take action. The first step in any plan to escape the credit card debt trap is to stop using credit cards: piling new debt on top of old debt will only make matters worse.
It’s difficult to stop using credit cards, especially if you’ve grown dependent on them. It is still possible. You may choose to start using them again once your debts are paid off or you may choose to continue with a card-free life. Either way, a period without cards will help you control destructive habits and take back your financial life!
An unused credit card will not harm your credit. It may even help your credit: the credit limit on your unused card will help to keep your credit utilization ratio low. Your card will help your credit score more if you use it to pay even a single small recurring expense: the account will not be dormant and it will help you build your payment history. The key is to limit usage and always pay the bill in full.
Nothing will initially happen if you stop using your cards. Eventually — usually after a year — the card issuer may close the account, but until then there will be no adverse consequences. Even if you are not using a card, always read every statement. You may spot recurring expenses that you’d forgotten and you could even detect a fraudulent or erroneous charge. If you’re worried about your accounts being closed, use each card once a year to pay a small expense in order to keep the account active, then pay the bill off in full.
If a credit card account is dormant for long enough the issuer will close it. This will usually happen after one year but may be longer depending on a few factors, like your customer history with the lender, whether the card has an annual fee (payment of the fee will usually keep the account open for another year) or your overall credit score. To ensure that the accounts remain open, use them once a year and pay them off in full.