Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time in and around credit card debt. My first professional job was in a customer service call center answering inquiries from credit card customers. From there I bounced around to different areas within the company including fraud, new credit, and then on to software development. Each of these experiences provided ammunition for learning how to get out of credit card debt – something I would use years later to get out of debt myself.
If you find yourself deep in credit card debt, consider the following tips for getting out of debt, and staying out.
- Transfer balances to a low interest credit card. The lower your average interest rate on remaining credit card debt, the more of a dent each payment makes in that remaining balance.
- Stop charging. This one seems so obvious I almost didn’t include it. Unfortunately, it is the one people usually fail to do with any conviction. The first step out of any hole is to stop digging. Debt management is no exception. Only then can you begin to devise a plan to crawl out. This step may require you chopping up your credit cards with a pair of scissors (keep one for emergencies), or at a minimum taking them out of your wallet and leaving them in a sock drawer at home. Whatever you have to do, stop making new charges.
- Pay debts off smallest to largest. Make minimum payments on all but the smallest one, and throw everything you can at the smallest one. The psychological advantage of scoring one or two quick wins bringing balances down to zero is worth the difference in interest charges. This is the snowball method of debt repayment made popular by Dave Ramsey in The Total Money Makeover, but many argue against the mathematics behind it. Like Ramsey says, “If you were good at math you wouldn’t have credit card debt!”
- Divide credit card minimum payments in half and pay that amount twice a month. Interest is calculated based on the average daily balance of your account for the entire month. By making a payment every couple weeks you are reducing that average balance and therefore reducing the finance charges assessed, as opposed to waiting until the end of the month to make a single payment. As an added benefit, splitting your payment into two separate payments helps smooth out the monthly budget as you will not have to come up with an entire payment once during the month, rather half that amount twice during the month (aim for around the time you receive your paycheck).
- Make micro payments (commonly referred to as snowflakes) any time you receive extra money. Send proceeds from eBay sales, garage sales, and any earnings from overtime or part time work directly to your credit card as soon as they are received. It may not seem like much, but it adds up. Besides, if you deposit the money in your primary checking account you are more likely to spend it than to use it later in the month towards repaying outstanding debt.
- Find part-time work. Sometimes this is the only option to generate cash flow over and above your normal monthly earnings. I offer this as a last resort, especially for families, because it often requires a parent being away from their family for long periods of time each day. Working a full-time job and then leaving for your part-time job makes for a long day. However, it also gives you more snow for that snowball, helping you become debt free even faster! Many times you can earn more than minimum wage retail jobs by doing something on your own. In the past I have mowed lawns, submitted articles to paying article directories, and volunteered for overtime to come up with extra debt snowball payments.
- Close out your newest accounts. As balances are paid off, close out all but your oldest one or two credit cards (I hung on to only my oldest card). One of the components of FICO score calculations is length of credit history, which is negatively affected each time you open a new account. By closing these newer cards you are effectively making the average age of your credit history older. If you aren’t sure about how old your accounts are, I suggest ordering a copy of your credit report at MyFICO.com). If you are not confident in your ability to manage credit cards going forward, consider cutting up all of your cards and living on a cash basis, but only after you have a fully-funded emergency fund in place of at least five or six months of expenses.
By following the above tips you should be able to make progress towards debt freedom, however there is one key ingredient missing from the list. Anger. You have to get mad about being in debt to get out of it. You have to make it a priority. You have to be willing to sacrifice all other financial goals for a period of time to put every extra penny you can scrape together towards getting out of debt.
As long as you are complacent about credit debt, it will continue to hang around forever. If you find yourself deep in credit card debt I strongly urge you to find the proper motivation and start a debt snowball plan today. Tomorrow is just an excuse away.