Gas Prices Pumping Plastic Trouble

CBS/The Early Show
With gas prices soaring, many Americans are using credit cards to pay at the pump. And that's created a problem.

Those big bills are coming due, and many people are having trouble paying off the debt.

A new survey by the American Bankers Association shows a record 4.81 percent of Americans were more than 30 days delinquent on their credit cards in the second quarter of this year.

Money magazine Managing Editor Eric Schurenberg says that "just shows that an awful lot of Americans are walking too close to the edge, financially. And so anything can tip them over. In this case, maybe it was $3-a-gallon gas."

He added, to The Early Show co-anchor Rene Syler, "But any unexpected cost, when you're that close to the edge, could put you over."

Asked how so many got into that quandary, Schurenberg explained, "There are too many temptations to spend. Credit is too easy, credit standards are lowering. Interest rates were low. It just seemed like something we could all get away with."

And, he cautioned, this could be a bad sign for the economy as a whole.

"The economy really depends on consumers being willing to spend," Schurenberg says. "The fact that there are so many people who aren't able even to pay off credit card loans, that's worrisome. It means the consumer may have to … close up that wallet, and that would be very bad for the economy."

How do you know you're in trouble?

"There are lots of warning signs. One is that you only make the minimum payment every month. If you do that, it's going to take you a long, long time to pay down your credit card balances."

As for tips to help people dig out of any financial hole they might find themselves in, No. 1 is that you "assess the problem. Look at where your money is going. You can't plug the leak if you don't know where it is. So, look at your checkbook register, go back to your credit card statements, and find out where you are spending money that you could cut back."

Also, find out your credit score: "You can look it up. The way to keep your credit score high, which is a way of keeping your interest payments low, is to pay off your debt, on time, every month. But another thing: If you're paying down a credit card, balance on a card, choose the card where you have the highest balance relative to your total credit limit. Lenders like to see that you're not borrowing every penny you could borrow."

Syler said her mother "used to always preach, 'Talk to your creditors. If you get in trouble, make a phone call and ask them to help you out a little bit.' "

Schurenberg had one bit of fine-tuning for that one: "You kind of have to warn them ahead of time that that's coming."

More advice: "Get help if you need it, and once ahead, stay ahead. Once you're ahead, cut up those credit cards. Use your debit (card) instead of your credit. Don't fall back into the same hole."

With winter around the corner and sky-high heating bills ahead, Schurenberg admits, "it's tough" for people living on the edge.

"It's time to assess the situation. Make sure you are at least saving some money, so you have a cushion."