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Credit Card Nation: How we went from record savings to record debt in just two years

Stephanie Roth
Stephanie Roth and her three children. Roth works full time but struggles to keep up with bills as prices rise. Like millions of Americans, she has found herself in mounting credit card debt.

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Stephanie Roth, 41, realized just how much her financial situation had deteriorated when she was signing up to bring a dish to the Valentine's Day party at her kids' daycare.

"I used to always be a mom who would sign up for the main stuff like the sandwiches," she says. "You know, the big, expensive things."

A change of fortune

Before the pandemic, Roth was in a good financial situation. She could bring the sandwiches, the soda and the cupcakes. But last month, she realized that was no longer the case.

"I was literally looking at the list thinking, 'What has inflation not messed with?' And I signed up for bananas, because they're still 59 cents a pound."

Roth has three children, ages 2, 4 and 6 and lives in Lebanon, Tennessee, just outside of Nashville.

She has a full time job as an administrative medical assistant, helping adults with disabilities get services. She had never really had debt and had always been good with money. But during the pandemic, Roth went through a divorce and her finances and lifestyle changed dramatically.

Roth took full custody of her children and became the main support for her children. That was a stretch on a salary of about $40,000 a year. Especially considering the cost of daycare. "It's like $1,500 a month," she says. "That's half my paycheck right there."

A little here, a little there

Between childcare and the rising price of gas, food and clothes, Roth feels like her paycheck is spent before she takes it home... or more than spent.

"The cell phone bill came up due and I didn't have the money in my checking account," she recalls. "So I had to pay with my credit card."

Roth started leaning on her credit card to pick up the extra expenses her paycheck couldn't cover. Her balances started to grow. At the same time, her credit card company was raising interest rates: from about 15% in 2019, to more than 22%.

The Great Money Reset

Millennials like Roth have seen their debt rise by nearly 30% since before the pandemic, to about $3.8 trillion. What's so strange about this is that back in 2021, that debt had fallen to near-record lows.

"We saw Americans across the income stream save a lot of money. I mean a lot of money," says Jill Schlesinger, CBS news business analyst and author of The Great Money Reset.

Schlesinger says stimulus checks, lockdown and pay raises had people in really strong financial shape, with the highest personal savings rate on record. "But then 2022 starts and inflation doesn't go down," says Schlesinger. "And then we saw many people plow through those pandemic era savings, left with nothing."

Schlesinger says the rising price of basics, like food, gas and clothing, have landed millions of Americans in real financial distress. "For a lot of people, this is not, 'I'm going out and buying something fancy,'" she says. "Things are more expensive and just to keep up with where you were last year, you have to pay a lot more."

I'll be 300 when it's paid off.

Stephanie Roth watched her debt balloon, along with her minimum payments. On top of that, unexpected expenses started to spiral, like when her daughter fell and needed two stitches on her chin at the emergency room. That cost her $800.

Roth's credit card debt seemed to explode, from a few thousand dollars to more than $10,000 and now it's about $25,000.

"Sometimes it feels very heavy, like crushing," says Roth. "I just think, 'I'm gonna have to pay this back and I don't know how that's gonna happen. If I do just the minimum payments, I'll be like 300 when it's paid off.'"

Credit card nation

Credit card debt in the US has been rising at one of the fastest rates in history. We collectively owe nearly $1 trillion dollars on our cards, an all time high. In January alone, credit card debt jumped more than 11%. And with interest rates rising, getting ahead of the debt gets harder and harder.

Now millions of Americans, like Roth, are falling behind on their finances. And help can be hard to come by. Roth tried to take advantage of government assistance and services, like free Pre-K for her daughter and SNAP food benefits, which would help her financial situation.

But in every case, Roth found she made too much money to qualify. "I just make enough to not be poor enough to qualify for services," Roth says with a laugh. "I don't know how, because I'm like, 'Dude, I am so poor. You don't even know.'"

The sandwich and cupcake mom

Roth tries every month to pay a little bit more than the minimum payment, but most of the time it just doesn't happen. At the same time, she worries her kids are missing out on things.

"That's probably my biggest focus is making sure that they are having those fun, memorable moments," she says. "Moments that could give them joy... because this is a special time in their lives and it's been so hard. We've all been through a lot the last year or two." Roth dreams of having enough extra money to take her kids out for ice cream on a whim or to the Build-A-Bear store.

And of once again being the mom who signs up to bring sandwiches and cupcakes to the Valentine's Day party at daycare, instead of the bananas.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.