In credit card debt? Forget skipping lattes and focus on these areas of spending instead

People with credit card debt spend more on nonessential purchases than those who are debt free, survey finds. Here's how to cut back on the stuff that matters.
Paying with a credit card
If you’re having trouble making ends meet and you’re running up a sizeable balance on your credit card, it’s time to figure out where you can trim some of that nonessential spending.PeopleImages / Getty Images
Get the Better newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Herb Weisbaum

When it comes to credit card debt, discretionary spending is often a significant part of the problem. Identifying it can also be a critical part of the solution.

Credit card debtors are outspending debt-free households in seven of nine discretionary spending categories, according to a recent survey by CreditCards.com. However, few people (18 percent) said they’d be willing to cut back on their luxury purchases to reduce their debt.

“The average U.S. household spends thousands of dollars a year on nonessentials,” said Ted Rossman, industry analyst at CreditCards.com. “If you’re charging these luxuries and carrying a balance, you’re spending an average of about 18 percent more in interest for the privilege. Would you have chosen the same car, plane ticket or restaurant if the price were 18 percent higher?”

The CreditCards.com survey of nearly 2,500 U.S. adults found that those with credit card debt spend more each year on these luxury categories:

  • Dining and takeout food: $2,186 vs. $2,023
  • Clothing and accessories: $1,892 vs. $1,515
  • Cellphone service and equipment upgrades: $1,629 vs. $1,326
  • Entertainment outside the home: $1,538 vs. $1,232
  • Fitness: $1,385 vs. $1,317
  • Subscription services: $1,198 vs. $1,083
  • Personal care and beauty products: $1,146 vs. $945

“People tell us that they get into credit card debt either because of an emergency or because of day-to-day expenses. But what the data shows is that these day-to-day expenses can include a lot of lifestyle creep; extras like dining out, entertainment, gym memberships — things that are really busting your budget,” Rossman told NBC News BETTER.

The only discretionary spending categories in which households with credit card debt underspent debt-free ones were:

  • Leisure travel: $2,211 vs. $3,188
  • Car loan or lease: $5,096 vs. $5,262

While most people would not consider a car payment a discretionary expense, the average household with credit card debt is spending $425 a month on a car loan, the CreditCards.com survey found.

“That's a big chunk of change,” Rossman said. “You can definitely get by with a much cheaper used car or maybe you can keep your existing car a bit longer. You don't need an expensive brand-new car.”

How to cut back on nonessential spending

Get the better newsletter.

It’s often suggested that skipping that daily latte is an easy way to get your budget back on track. Saving $3-6 a day might give you a bit more breathing room each month, but personal financial experts say you’ll need to spend less on more substantial things to make a significant dent in your budget.

“I'm not really big into the whole latte-shaming thing,” Rossman said. “For me, it's about big things, such as car loans, vacations and restaurant meals. That’s what really adds up.”

Maurie Backman, a personal finance writer for The Motley Fool agrees.

“Actually, it's not coffee, it's more like restaurants, takeout and meal delivery,” Backman said.

Let’s say you spend $20 on a pasta dish at a restaurant that you could make at home for about $5. That’s not a big deal on a one-off basis, Backman said, “but if it's something you do two or three times a week, every single week, that's something you have some wiggle room to cut.”

Backman also advises looking at charges that are billed automatically each month.

“Sometimes you just forget that you're being billed for a service that you don't actually need or utilize anymore,” she told NBC News BETTER. “Common offenders are music and video streaming services, gym memberships and those subscription boxes for clothing, cosmetics and accessories that people sign up for.”

You really need a budget

We all like to treat ourselves to something special every now and then. No one is saying it’s wrong to go the movies, dine out, take an exercise class — or even buy a specialty coffee drink — from time to time.

But if you’re having trouble making ends meet and you’re running up a sizeable balance on your credit card, it’s time to figure out where you can trim some of that nonessential spending.

Do you have a family budget? Only 40 percent of American households have a budget, according to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC).

“It's very important to have a budget and track your spending,” said Bruce McClary, the NFCC’s vice president of communications. “You don't want to be spending money and not know where it's going because you may end up running out of money before you run out of month.”

You don’t need a complicated spreadsheet, just keep track of all your monthly expenses. Once you know where the money is going, it’s easier to figure out where to make meaningful spending cuts that will improve your monthly cashflow.

The NFCC has a monthly budget planner to help you get started.

If you find yourself drowning in debt and unable to find a way out, you need to get professional help. Contact a local non-profit credit counseling agency that can evaluate your situation and suggest a gameplan. In most cases, the initial consultation is free.

“A non-profit credit counselor can take an objective look at your financial situation and offer guidance and suggestions based on your situation and your circumstances,” McClary told NBC News BETTER. “It's affordable. It's easy to access. And they're not going to judge you on the choices you've made financially. Their only goal is to give you options for getting back on track and reaching your financial goals.”

More ways to get out of debt

Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.