Millions of Americans hocked their financial future this past holiday shopping season. They put almost $150 billion on credit cards over just a couple of months—about $15 billion more than the year before. An astounding one in six Americans carry balances of more than $10,000, and one in six families only make the minimum monthly payments.
If your financial house is not in order, it is time to take action. Getting out of credit card debt is imperative for your financial well-being. With the economy slowing, the housing market souring, and the latest unemployment report showing deteriorating conditions, the need to put yourself in the clear has never been greater.
You can be debt-free! Don’t wait for the bills to arrive. Start putting these seven steps into action today.
1. Create a Budget
Most people who have money problems don’t have a financial plan. If you want to get out of debt and stay out of debt, the first thing you need to do is understand your financial condition. Start by listing all your expenses on a monthly basis. Be thorough and accurate. The point is to find out how much you need to spend. Next, total your sources of income.
The simple fact is, if your outflow exceeds your income, then your upkeep will be your downfall. In other words, if your balance sheet doesn’t add up, you must increase your earnings or reduce your standard of living. Focus on keeping the “needs” and cutting the “wants.”
One way to keep from overspending is to place cash into envelopes and label them for each category of monthly spending. If you go out for dinner, take the “dining out” or “entertainment” envelope with you and keep track of how much remains in the envelope. When the envelope is empty, that is it—no “borrowing” from other envelopes.
2. Quit Using Those Cards
Think of your cards as a tool, not a license to spend. And don’t get distracted by points or rewards. Remember, the reason credit card companies entice borrowers with all the rewards and points is because they make money off users (it is not out of the goodness of their hearts).
If you have a binge-spending problem, as one adviser suggests, “freeze” your accounts. Literally. Put your cards in a Ziploc bag filled with water and then toss them in the freezer. That way you won’t easily be able to use them. Another strategy would be to simply cut them up.
Find out how much you owe on each card and what interest rate you are paying. Go online or call your credit card companies to get a current tally of your bills and the annual rate you are being charged.
In most cases, it makes sense to pay off the card with the highest interest rate first. If you are making minimum payments on multiple cards, do not stop paying one card to focus on the others. Make the minimum payments on all cards, but use additional funds to pay off the higher-rate cards.
4. Pay More Than the Minimum
Making just the minimum payment will cost you thousands of dollars over time. For example, if you are 20 years old and owe $5,000 on a credit card that has an interest rate of 18 percent and you just pay the minimum of 4 percent each month, you will be 32 years old before you have dug yourself out of that hole. By then you will have wasted almost $3,000 in interest—and that is if you don’t add any additional debt to the card, miss any payments or get hit with any other fees. If your credit card charges 30 percent interest, as many cards do, it would take you almost 20 years to pay it off, and you will pay more than $8,000 in interest.
Think of all the extra money you will have after paying all those bills—or better yet, money you will save by not getting into debt again in the future.
5. Transfer High-Interest Debt Onto Lower-Interest Credit Cards
If you are paying 20 percent on one card, but you can transfer it to a card that only charges 11 percent, do so. It could save you thousands over the length of the loan.
However, be careful: Many cards have penalties and fees associated with balance transfers. Some cards also have low teaser interest rates to entice borrowers. With that in mind, make sure you talk to the credit card company and read all the fine print before transferring balances between cards.
Also, pay attention to the interest rate on each monthly statement. Credit card companies are allowed to change the rate of interest at any time, regardless of payment history. If you miss a payment on one card, it can affect all your cards.
Some people with credit card debt choose to borrow against their homes at lower interest rates to pay off high-rate cards. Although this may make sense in certain situations and may help you pay off your bills quicker, it also puts your home on the hook as collateral. If you don’t pay a credit card bill, no one is going to come and kick you out of your house. But if you use a home equity line of credit to pay off the cards and then get in more trouble, you and your family could be out on the street.
6. Seek Advice, But Beware of “Debt Negotiation” Schemes
If you have extreme credit card problems, you may need to seek professional advice. But be very choosy about who you turn to because your credit rating is on the line. Some organizations have been accused of claiming to help debtors while doing little but charging fees.
However, a non-profit debt-help organization can provide much-needed expert counsel. Information on reputable counseling services can be found at the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies.
7. If You Can’t Make a Payment, Let Your Card Company Know Right Away
There is a good chance it will be able to work with you by taking a partial payment or deferring your payments, especially if you have a good payment history. Also, some cards come with built-in insurance against job loss or other events.
So get to work.
Start by returning any unused and unneeded recent purchases.
Remember, the underlying problem is a spending problem. Make a plan and get control of your budget, then the rest will begin to fall into place.
Credit card debt is surmountable. It takes hard work and determination, but now is the time to do it. Your financial future and your peace of mind depend on it.