How to Dig Yourself Out of Credit Card Debt
7 ways to shrink your debt down to zero
If you have a mountain of credit card debt, you’re not alone. Nearly half of all Americans have more credit card debt than they have in savings, according to a 2014 survey by Bankrate.com.
Add to that interest rates that may jump from 7 percent to 29 percent if you’re a day late making a payment, and you may find credit card debt is dragging you down financially and emotionally.
With the right strategies, however, you can become debt-free sooner than you think. The key is identifying the right plan and having the patience and self-control to follow it through.
Start with these steps.
Back away from your cards
The first step you should take is to start buying things with cash, experts advise. To keep buying on credit creates a downward spiral of debt. Plus, paying for things in cash makes you think twice about how much they cost and whether or not you can truly afford them.
Transfer your debt to a zero-interest card (and pay it off)
This can be an ideal way to pay off your credit card debt if your debts are relatively small and you pay enough to eliminate the principal debt before the zero-percent introductory interest rate ends. The problem is that some people amass more debt on the balance transfer card and then find themselves walloped by double-digit interest when the grace period ends.
Choose a card with the longest introductory period you can find. Forbes has some suggestions here.
Ask for a lower interest rate
Sometimes you can’t get a balance transfer card when you need it. Some credit card companies may agree to a lower interest rate, though, especially if you are a good customer and escalate your request to a supervisor.
Related: How to Create a Rainy-Day Fund
Fast-pay down your cards one by one
In financial expert David Bach’s best-selling “ How to Finish Rich” book series, he advises not only keeping up with your monthly minimum payments, but paying $10 each day toward the same card. This will cut back on the principal, so you can pay down your debt faster — something that could saves you thousands of dollars on interest over time.
Bach says you should also ask yourself how you got into debt and why you want out — because if you don’t know, you may find it hard to motivate yourself to make the necessary changes. To pay down daunting credit card debt, he advises taking these steps (part of a popular program he’s invented called DOLP, or Done On Last Payment).
- Make a list of all your debts and create a folder for each credit card account.
- Figure out each account’s DOLP number. To do so, divide your outstanding balance by the minimum monthly payment. If you owe, say, $250 on a Visa and your minimum payment is $50, divide $250 by 50 and assign your Visa account a DOLP number of 5. (This number represents what you owe on the account’s principal, not counting the interest.)
- Rank all the DOLP numbers by their numerical value, starting with the number 1 (the DOLP above would be number 5, for example).
- Set yourself a reminder to pay at least five days in advance, since late payments “can cost an absolute fortune,” as Bach says.
- Make the minimum payment on every card except the lowest-ranking one. Pay at least twice as much on that one each month until it is paid off, then do the same with the next lowest-ranking account until your cards are paid off.
Set a date by which you’ll be debt-free
To pay down your debts faster, try setting a realistic date by which you’d like things paid off. You may want to DOLP two cards at the same time, or pay more than the minimum on all of them. Without a set date, you have room to fall behind on your payments or even lose sight of your goal entirely.
If you’re having trouble coming up with extra money to pay down your cards, see what small luxuries you could do without for a while (lattes, muffins, eating out). Leave yourself a little cash for treats, but put as much as you can toward being debt-free.
Consider a credit counselor
If your payments are so large you’re in danger of missing them entirely, consider using a non-profit credit counseling service. These services negotiate with lenders to lower your interest, so you can decide on a minimum payment that’s comfortable for you and pay off your debts entirely in 5 years or less.
Be aware, though, that your credit score will take a hit. If you’re about to buy or refinance a house, for example, you’ll need a good credit score and should wait until you’re done to enter the counseling program.
Negotiate directly with credit card companies to lower your debt
If you have credit card debt that has gone to collections, avoid debt settlement companies if possible. According to a Federal Trade Commission advisory, “Some companies offering debt settlement programs may engage in deception and fail to deliver on the promises they make — for example, promises or “guarantees” to settle all your credit card debts for, say, 30 to 60 percent of the amount you owe.”
Dealing with credit card companies directly is the best option. A lender’s customer service rep can point you to the right division to suggest a debt settlement (say, $5,000 or less to pay off a $10,000 debt in collections). Be sure to ask for a letter explaining the negotiated debt was “paid in full” to send to the credit bureaus.
If you lack the funds to pay minimum monthly charges or consolidated payments, you may want to consider bankruptcy; in very rare cases it may be the best option. But hopefully you will be able to save enough to pay off your debt for good.