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DIGGING DEEPER: As financial hardships continue, some turning to credit cards to cover daily costs

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Morgan Giddings quit her part-time job right before the pandemic began, and then not even three weeks later, she was laid off from her full-time job because of the pandemic.

Months later, she still has not been approved for unemployment benefits. The Department of Workforce Development rejected her original application because of a Wisconsin law that states she wasn't making enough to qualify after she left her part-time job.

She appealed, and as that process drags on, her savings have dried up and bills are coming due.

"I'm hoping that I'll be approved for my unemployment, so it will be, I think, a big chunk of money hopefully," she said. "I don't know how I'll pay it unless I get that."

She said she's been using her credit card to make daily purchases more often the last few months, although national data on credit card use actually tells a different story.

According to the Federal Reserve's quarterly Consumer Credit report, credit card debt has gone down over the several months that the pandemic has affected Americans.

The outstanding revolving debt, which mostly consists of credit card debt, fell below $1 trillion in the second quarter 2020 for the first time in several years.

It continued to fall steadily through the summer. While debt is still not back up over $1 trillion, it did slowly start to climb back up in September.

Madison College finance instructor, Mike Johnson, says consumer debt also decreased during the Great Recession because people didn't have as much money to spend.

He also says that because of nationwide shutdowns and COVID-19 precautions, there are less places to spend money.

"Chances are you're not putting as much gas in the tank, you're not putting on as many miles, you're maybe not staying in hotels as often, or taking airline flights, or going out to eat," he said.

People are also likely paying off debt with money they have been able to save or the money they received from their stimulus checks.

But Johnson says there are certainly people, like Giddings, who have not still not landed on their feet, and the Federal Reserve's data may not fully reflect those struggling stories.

"It could very well be that the very few people reducing their debt by large amounts could really be counterbalancing the many people who have lost their jobs with the high unemployment rate," he said. "They're forced to, kind of, use their credit cards just to stay afloat."

As people like Giddings start using credit for everyday items, Johnson says there are ways to make sure you don't fall into a hole.

He suggests making a list of expenses, which will help people avoid making unnecessary purchases. Also, some credit cards offer benefits like cashback rewards on things like gas or grocery purchases. Johnson says taking advantage of those can help immensely.

Finally, Johnson and Giddings agree that you should be paying either the full balance or at least the minimum due on your credit card bill each month.

Giddings said she tries to pay it every month so that she can avoid high interest costs.

Paying the bill in some fashion each month will also keep your credit score from going down.

"You do have to be careful to not overspend, it is real money," said Johnson "You are going to have to pay it."

As for Giddings, the waiting game continues.

"I feel hopeful," she said. "But then again, it's been seven months."

Sara Maslar-Donar

Reporter, WKOW 27 News

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