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For most Americans, credit card debt is a way of life

Don't carry debt to improve credit score

Lisa Real got her first credit card when she was 18 years old -- and she has had credit card debt ever since then. For about 14 years, the 32-year-old made the minimum monthly payment for everything from dinners out to home repairs.

While Real prided herself for never missing a payment, she had racked up $20,000 in debt by October of last year across six credit cards. When she logged in to her accounts, she saw it would take her 22 years to finish paying down that debt.

"Honestly, I thought I'd be dead before paying off the payments," Real said.

For many Americans, credit card debt is the unfortunate gift that keeps on taking, especially as interest accrues on minimum payments. If you're like 39 million cardholders, you've likely carried a credit card balance for at least the past two years, according to a new CreditCards.com survey released Thursday. 

More than half of cardholders had debt for at least one year and carried a balance on at least one card. Another 8 million don't recall the last time they weren't in debt. 

YouGov Plc conducted the survey for CreditCards.com, contacting just over 2,500 adults, including about 1,780 credit cardholders and 1,040 with credit card debt.

Groceries, not shopping sprees

While credit card debt is commonly portrayed as the result of irresponsible spending, like going on shopping sprees, the survey found this isn't the case. Nearly two-thirds of Americans with credit card debt most typically rack it up due to emergency expenses, like car repairs or medical bills, or to daily spending, like groceries or utility bills.

Millennials were typically more stressed about credit card debt than older generations and also more likely to rack up debt for groceries or child care. Baby boomers were most likely to report using credit cards for medical expenses. In total, nearly two-thirds of respondents indicated they use credit cards because they aren't able to keep up with necessary spending.

"Commonly, this is just life happening to people," said Ted Rossman, industry analyst at CreditCards.com.

How to rebuild your credit

Rising inequality

The spending carries a high price tag, as interest rates have reached a record high of 17.55 percent. Rossman said that rate is actually on the lower end because people may be charged higher rates depending on their credit score or issuer.

That has exacerbated income inequality in the U.S., especially because cardholders with lower incomes are the most likely to be carrying credit card debt.

"There are some people doing really well, and there are a number of people that have been left behind," Rossman said.

For people struggling with credit card debt, here are some tips:

  • Don't fall for rewards. While credit card rewards are satisfying, there's little sense in paying upwards of 18 percent interest just to get 1 percent or 2 percent back in rewards. "You should only care about rewards if you're paying the bill in full," Rossman said. 
  • Prioritize lower interest rates. Sign up for balance-transfer cards, which move balances to a new card with a lower interest rate, making it easier to pay down debt. Look specifically for balance-transfer cards that don't charge transfer fees. 
  • Build up emergency savings accounts. Financial experts recommend anywhere from three to nine months worth of savings, but even a couple hundred dollars can be the buffer between you and credit card debt.
  • Stay on the right side of compounding interest. Every dollar invested can accrue interest and build extra dollars in the long run. If you're accruing interest on credit card debt, cut expenses or generate extra income to pay back credit card debt more quickly -- it will add up fast.