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A new year can bring plenty of optimism for what lies ahead, but turning the page can also lead to some regret and anxiety. If you’ve carried more credit card debt into 2023 than you would like, here are some concrete steps to put you on the road to recovery.
1. Understand how much you owe
As Maya Angelou famously said, you need to know where you’ve been to know where you’re going. Even if it’s uncomfortable, it’s important to bring your credit card debt into the light. Hiding from the problem won’t make it any better. Compile a list of how much you owe and the interest rate(s) you’re being charged. If you have a spouse, involve them in this exercise. It’s a critical first step in mapping out a debt payoff strategy.
2. Know your minimum payment
While you need to pay at least the monthly minimum to remain current in the eyes of your card issuer and the credit bureaus, you need to pay significantly more than that to make real progress paying down your debt.
For example, the average American’s credit card balance is $5,474, according to TransUnion. The average credit card charges 19.85 percent, Bankrate reports. If we assume those parameters and the typical minimum payment formula of 1 percent of the balance plus interest (with a floor of $35), someone making only minimum payments would be in debt for 201 months and would owe a grand total of $7,528 in interest — more than the original debt.
That’s pretty staggering, and it illustrates why it’s so important to pay much more than the minimum. Pay it all if you can, but even if you can’t, view every dollar you pay down as a guaranteed, tax-free return of whatever your interest rate happens to be. There’s a good chance that rate is well above what you’re paying on other forms of debt, and it’s probably also much higher than you could reasonably expect to earn on your investments (at least without taking on a lot of risk).
3. Don’t dig the hole any deeper
There’s a saying that credit cards are like power tools: They can be really useful, or they can be dangerous. For cardholders who can pay in full and avoid interest, credit card rewards are a major perk. Credit cards also offer much more generous buyer protections than other payment methods, encompassing everything from fraud defenses to purchase protection, extended warranties, travel insurance and more.
The one big drawback of using credit cards is that they tend to charge high interest rates. If you have credit card debt, consider shifting your spending over to a debit card or cash for a while so that you’re not adding to your debt burden. Once your credit card debt is paid off, you can revisit credit card rewards and all that fun stuff.
4. Enlist support
A journey tends to be easier and more fun with a buddy. Identify people who can help cheer you on during your debt payoff quest. In addition to providing emotional support and motivation, they can also help keep you on track by saving money on entertainment.
For example, a friend who respects your desire to save money by dining out less frequently could help organize a fun night in or a low-cost picnic in a park rather than always suggesting pricier outings. We tend to emulate the financial habits of our closest friends and family members, so it’s helpful to have some help from your inner circle.
5. Know your options
There are plenty of good debt payoff strategies that you can pursue. The first four steps can be accomplished pretty quickly and focus on specific, quick wins that will point you in the right direction. This fifth step could take months or even years. But know that help is available.
My favorite credit card debt payoff tip is to sign up for a 0 percent balance transfer card. This is a form of debt consolidation. You open up a new credit card with a generous interest-free promotional term — the longest on the market right now is 21 months. Essentially, when you complete a balance transfer, you’re using this new card to pay off your old cards. Then you repay the new card at a much more favorable interest rate.
I think the best way to use a balance transfer card is to refrain from making any new purchases. Divide what you owe by the number of months in your 0 percent term and try to stick with that fixed monthly payment. Even though these cards typically charge a balance transfer fee between 3 and 5 percent, they’re well worth it when used properly. You get almost two years to pay off your debt without interest. Just make sure you’re actually making progress.
A personal loan could be another viable form of debt consolidation. If you have good credit, you might be able to qualify for a rate as low as about 7 percent over five to seven years. Similar to a balance transfer card, you could use the personal loan to pay off the higher-interest cards right away, then pay the personal loan off over time at a much lower rate. It won’t be as low as 0zero percent, but personal loans typically have longer terms than balance transfer cards, so it’s a tradeoff worth considering.
Reputable nonprofit credit counseling agencies such as Money Management International can put together similar debt management plans — perhaps something like a 6 percent rate over four to five years. These plans are especially advantageous if you have a lower credit score and/or a lot of credit card debt (especially $5,000 or more). Credit counseling is also a great approach if you want an expert to hold your hand through the process.
Don’t forget about the fundamentals, either. In addition to these strategies, you might consider taking on a side hustle to free up additional money to pay off your credit cards. You could also ask for a raise at work or seek a higher-paying job elsewhere. I’m also a big fan of selling stuff you don’t need. And look for ways to cut your expenses. As they say, a dollar saved is a dollar earned.
The bottom line
Credit card debt is easy to get into and hard to get out of. It can be an uncomfortable topic to discuss, but it’s so important. It’s really hard to build wealth if you’re paying 20 percent interest on a regular basis. As the saying goes, a long journey starts with a single step. Use this blueprint to start your debt payoff quest. Hopefully, you’ll experience some quick wins to build momentum.
Remember it’s okay to treat yourself once in a while. It might take months or years, but you can knock out your credit card debt once and for all. Now that’s a sweet reward.
Have a question about credit cards? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’d be happy to help.