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Americans Are Saving More, But Credit Card Debt Is Still a Problem

Americans are doing a little better job of adding to their personal savings, but more are running up credit card debt that they can't pay off at the end of the month, according to the new 2016 Consumer Financial Literacy Survey.

The survey of 1,600 adults was conducted by the Harris Poll for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) and Seattle-based BECU, the nation's fourth largest credit union.

Key findings:

  • Twenty-six percent said they are saving more now than last year, up two percentage points from the 2015 survey results
  • Sixty-nine percent are contributing income toward non-retirement savings, back to the level reported in 2013
  • One in three (35 percent) carry credit card debt from month to month, up slightly from 2015
  • Fourteen percent roll over a balance of $2,500 or more in credit card debt each month vs. 11 percent in 2015

Carrying a balance is costly: The average credit card interest rate is now 15 percent, according to CreditCards.com. But pay late or miss a payment entirely and that rate can easily shoot up to nearly 30 percent. That interest will quickly eat away at money needed to pay current bills or that could be set aside for savings.

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"Even though it's encouraging that people are saving more for their retirement and being more thoughtful about being prepared for a financial emergency, it's a zero-sum game if they're paying high interest rates on their credit card debt," said Susan C. Keating, NFCC's president and CEO.

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Millennials are the one really bright spot in this survey. They're better than any other age group at both paying off credit card debt and saving for the future.

The NFCC survey found:

  • Forty percent of millennials have a somewhat good idea of what they are spending
  • Sixty-two percent are paying their credit card bills on time
  • Millennials are significantly more likely than their 35 and older counterparts to be saving more compared to a year ago

For a generation that grew up during the Great Recession, saving for a rainy day and for the future apparently takes on greater importance. That may also be why many millennials are reluctant to use credit cards.

Getting caught in the debt trap

It's easy to convince yourself that you're doing OK as long as you make the minimum payment each month. But Bruce McClary, NFCC's vice president for communications and a former credit counselor, calls that "a warning sign" that your family budget needs attention.

"You're really adding gas to the fire when you do that," McClary told NBC News. "The debt continues to grow, the interest continues to accrue. And what started out as a balance you thought was manageable becomes unmanageable. And you find yourself up against the wall, unable to make even the minimum payments."

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That's what happened to Arthur Bennett, a retired insurance agent in Oregon. He and his wife ran up about $5,000 in credit card debt, but they figured they could handle it because they made the minimum payments on all the cards each month.

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"You think you're doing so well, and then all of a sudden it hits you in the face — I'm in a spot here and I've got to do something," Bennett told NBC News. "The interest started adding up and adding up, and then you're at the point where you can't make the minimum payments. That's when I got scared. We were in over our heads and realized what was going to happen pretty soon."

The Bennetts went to American Financial Solutions, a non-profit credit counseling agency. The counselor got the interest rates on their cards lowered — saving them thousands of dollars — and set up a repayment schedule. The Bennetts now have payments they can afford and will soon be debt free.

Retirement concerns are justified

Many Americans are concerned about paying for their retirement, and rightly so, according to this survey.

About one in four adults (26 percent vs. 29 percent in 2015) is not saving anything for retirement.

"We are encouraged by the slight increase in the U.S. savings rate; however it's clear that we still have more work to do to improve the financial health of Americans nationwide," said Benson Porter, BECU's president and CEO, in a statement.

A recent Financial Security Index report from Bankrate.com found that most Americans have a real discomfort with their level of savings, something that overshadows the positive feelings generated by the economic recovery.

"People realize how important it is to save," Greg McBride, Bankrate's chief financial analyst, told NBC News. "They know they need to save more and they know they're not making progress toward that."

Struggling? Help is available

If you had financial problems related to debt, who would you turn to for help? Twenty-four percent of the adults responding to that question in the NFCC survey said family and friends.

When asked why they wouldn't contact a professional non-profit credit counseling agency, roughly one in four said they felt they could handle the problem without outside help.

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Keep in mind: Unless that family member or friend is a financial professional, the advice they give may not be best. As the NFCC's McClary cautions, "You could be setting yourself up for even more problems."

A non-profit counselor can work with creditors and set up a repayment plan that can tackle what seems like an insurmountable amount of credit card debt.

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Martha Souder remembers when she contacted Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Maryland & Delaware. She refers to the day she met with her credit counselor as "the best day of my life."

Following her divorce, Souder was saddled with $50,000 in credit card debt and could no longer make even the minimum payments.

"I was sinking fast and found myself in deep doo-doo, but I did not want to file for bankruptcy," she said. "I made this mess and I needed to clean it up."

Souder walked into the meeting with all of her paperwork and walked out with a plan to pay off her debt. And now, after four years of payments, she's nearly debt-free.

"At times it was extremely difficult. It was challenging and daunting," she said. "I'm really proud of what I did and I want others to know that help is available."

You can connect with an NFCC certified consumer credit counselor online or by calling 800.388.2227.

Herb Weisbaum is The ConsumerMan. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter or visit The ConsumerMan website.