Remember 1967?

Green Bay won the Super Bowl; The Graduate was playing at the multiplex; and sending a letter cross country cost one shiny nickel.

Well, I don't remember any of that - seeing I wasn't yet a glimmer in my parents' eyes. However, the people at InCharge Debt Solutions have been kind enough to pull together some interesting facts to help us walk down memory lane.

In the U.S. in 1967:

  • Unemployment was 3.8 percent
  • Median income was $7,143
  • A gallon of gas was 33 cents
  • And Americans had racked up $1.4 billion in credit card debt

Now, let's fast forward to 2012. Unemployment increased 105 percent to 7.8 percent, median income jumped 607 percent to $50,502 and the cost of gas went up 900 percent to $3.30 per gallon. And -- get this -- credit card debt went up 61,186 percent to $858 billion.

Yes, those are five digits up there. Credit card debt didn't go up 600 percent or even 6,000 percent. No, it went up more than 60,000 percent.

Wow.

Runaway credit card balances

Now before you think this is a prelude to a lecture on the evils of credit cards, rest assured I have no beef with their responsible use. I do write for CardRatings.com after all.

What is concerning is credit card use without a plan, and the numbers from InCharge should give us all pause. Obviously, at some point, Americans have gone horribly wrong with their credit card usage.

Rather than using credit cards as a tool to gain financial freedom, too many Americans are using them for mindless spending without considering the ramifications of charging that daily latte, those concert tickets or the dog's vet bill. The result may be a lifetime of minimum payments that are always going up and will never come down.

Smart strategies to keep credit card debt in check

Fortunately, there is no need to swear off credit cards, and you can certainly enjoy the convenience of plastic without compromising your financial future.

Here are some good rules to follow to keep your credit cards working for you rather than you working to pay off your credit cards.

  • Create a budget: Yes, I am going there. Really, you don't expect to have a discussion about smart financial strategies without mentioning the 'b' word, do you? Before you feel intimidated by budgeting, keep in mind a budget is just a plan for how you expect to spend your money each month. It isn't the Ten Commandments - you can change it any time if your spending priorities change.
  • Only charge what's in your budget: If you budget $500 for groceries, don't charge $700 at the supermarket. It's as simple as that. Using a cash back rewards card can give your bank account a little boost in the long run too. Just be sure you don't touch the budgeted amount (perhaps stash it in a savings account to keep your hands off) so you can pay off your balance when the bill arrives.
  • Plan big purchases: Not all credit card debt is bad. Zero APR credit cards can be cheaper than financing major purchases through other means. However, to be smart, have a plan for when you'll use your credit card as a financing tool and how you expect to pay it off. Don't simple pull out the plastic for a non-budgeted impulse buy.
  • Get your current debt under control: If you've already dug yourself a hole, it is time to get a handle on the situation. Depending on your current interest rates, it may be best to look for a balance transfer credit card with limited fees and a low interest rate to consolidate your debt. If you want to keep your current cards, look for a credit card payoff calculator to map out a debt reduction plan of attack.

Americans have been running wild with their credit cards, but the InCharge Debt Solutions report is hopefully the wake-up call we need to get our plastic habit under control.