It's common knowledge that charging too much on your credit cards is a bad thing. Not only can it leave you with a mountain of debt that can take decades to pay off, but it can severely damage your credit score, as well.
But how much is too much? The answer to this question is quite complicated and is different for every individual. And, your debt can be way too high for credit-scoring purposes, even though you can easily afford the payments.
Conversely, even with a mountain of debt, it's entirely possible that it could have a minimal effect on your credit score. So, how much is too much for you?
Your credit score is one issue
Thirty percent of your FICO credit score depends on the amounts you owe on your various credit accounts. However, as far as credit card debt is concerned, the actual dollar amount you owe plays little, if any, role in determining your score.
This may sound contradictory, but "amounts owed," in terms of credit scoring mainly refers to how much you owe relative to your available credit. For example, if you have $2,000 in credit card debt and $4,000 in total credit limits, you're using 50% of your available credit -- which is actually quite high.
On the other hand, someone with $4,000 in debt, but $20,000 in total credit limits is only using 20% of the available credit. This is much more favorable for scoring purposes, even though the dollar amount owed is higher.
There's no magic number that you need to stay below, but many experts say that, at most, you should use 30% of your available credit, and the lower the better. However, considering anything higher than 30% as "too much" credit card debt is a good rule of thumb.
A few other factors go into this portion of your credit score, as well. For example, owing a balance on too many individual credit cards can be a sign of over-extension, and can hurt your score. A more complete description of how the amounts you owe affect your credit score is available at myfico.com.
Can you afford it?
The second consideration here is whether or not you can afford the debt, and I don't just mean the minimum payments. I know people who have more than $100,000 in available credit, but would consider using even 20% of that as way too much.
When applying for credit with a lender, in order to determine your debt-to-income ratio, generally just your minimum credit card payments are considered. However, this amount is by no means enough. In order to be able to "afford" a certain amount of credit card debt, you should be able to comfortably pay several times the minimum payment each month.
Consider that $20,000 in credit card debt at 17.9% interest would come with a $500 minimum payment, based on 2.5% of the balance, and could take more than 30 years to pay back if you just make the minimum payments. And you'll end up paying almost $49,000 in total. However, if you were able to double the monthly payment to $1,000 per month instead, it would dramatically reduce your repayment time to less than 12 years, and the amount you'll pay to $28,400. Check out the drastic time effects of different monthly payment amounts on credit card debt.
Only carry as much debt as you're comfortable with
The bottom line is that, not only should you keep your total credit card debt to a relatively low percentage of your available credit, but it should be affordable in your budget, as well. Just because you can afford the minimum monthly payments doesn't mean you can afford to carry that much credit card debt.
Finally, while there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question, "How much credit card debt is too much," there is an easy guideline to live by: If you have to question whether or not your credit card debt is too high, it probably is.