What to do about card debt when on a fixed income


To Her Credit
To Her Credit, Sally Herigstad
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). She writes "To Her Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for, and also wrote for MSN Money, and, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs. See her website for more personal finance tips and free budgeting worksheets.
Ask Sally a question, or read her previous answers in the To Her Credit archive

Question Dear Sally,
I am in dire need of advice on how can I pay my credit card bills down. I’m on disability benefits, and I receive $1,200 once a month. I also have a mortgage and other things.

I also have three credit cards, altogether totaling about $1,000. I'm trying to rebuild my credit and pay down debt, but sometimes things come up, and I have no choice but to put it on a credit card because I have no money. I just need someone to help me get on the right track. – Carrie


Dear Carrie,
Your basic problem is lack of money, not your current credit card balances. If your credit card balances magically disappeared tomorrow, they would be back before you had a chance to celebrate because you have absolutely no wiggle room in your budget and apparently no emergency fund.

For people on disability benefits, this is an especially difficult situation. Disability benefits pay just the bare minimum for a person to live on, and there’s usually nothing extra to pay for unexpected expenses or to pay down debt. I’m not going to suggest you can cut a lot from your budget, because I doubt you have any extra to cut.

Depending on the type and permanence of your disability, I might suggest you find a way to increase your income. I have known people on disability who were able to work a few hours a week, without jeopardizing their disability status or their health. You may be able to find something related to your former line of work, but lower stress. When you are living on $1,200 per month, even a few hundred dollars per month would make a huge difference.

Another option is to start a very small, low-risk business. It could be as simple as buying and selling a few items online or offering a service.

If you have a mortgage, you must have a house. Perhaps you could share your space with someone who could help by paying you rent and sharing utility expenses. Or you could move in with a relative, even on a temporary basis, so you can rent out your house and receive income.

Unless you find a way to increase your monthly income, your choices are very limited. If you fall behind on your minimum payments, the credit card companies cannot take your disability benefits. However, they can raise your interest rates and tack on extra fees. When you need a little more credit to pay for those expenses that come up, you either won’t be able to use your credit, or it will cost you more to do so. That only makes it easier to get deeper in debt every year, until a person looks back and wonders how they could possibly have gotten into so much trouble.

If you would like someone to sit down with you and look at your total financial picture, you may consider trying credit counseling. I recommend finding a nonprofit agency affiliated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling or the Financial Counseling Association of America. Seeking help now, before you get deeper in debt, can help you get back on track and stay on track for good.

See related: Over your head in debt? 5 extreme budgeting ideas, Disabled and in debt: Three choices

Meet's reader Q&A experts

Does a personal finance problem have you worried? Monday through Saturday,'s Q&A experts answer questions from readers. Ask a question, or click on any expert to see their previous answers.

Published: April 1, 2016

Join the discussion
We encourage an active and insightful conversation among our users. Please help us keep our community civil and respectful. For your safety, do not disclose confidential or personal information such as bank account numbers or social security numbers. Anything you post may be disclosed, published, transmitted or reused.

If you are commenting using a Facebook account, your profile information may be displayed with your comment depending on your privacy settings. By leaving the 'Post to Facebook' box selected, your comment will be published to your Facebook profile in addition to the space below.

The editorial content on is not sponsored by any bank or credit card issuer. The journalists in the editorial department are separate from the company's business operations. The comments posted below are not provided, reviewed or approved by any company mentioned in our editorial content. Additionally, any companies mentioned in the content do not assume responsibility to ensure that all posts and/or questions are answered.

Follow Us

Updated: 10-25-2016

Weekly newsletter
Get the latest news, advice, articles and tips delivered to your inbox. It's FREE.