Marissa Sanders, better known online as the Simple Money Mom, understands what it’s like to face a mountain of debt. In 2015, she set out on a journey to pay off more than $26,000, including about $7,000 in credit card debt.
If you’re also burdened by credit card debt, know that you’re not alone. In 2017, the average American owned 3.1 credit cards with an average balance of $6,354, as well as 2.5 retail credit cards with an additional $1,841 in balances, according to a study by credit bureau Experian.
Many people remain stuck in a cycle of accumulating debt and struggle to pay it off for most of their lives. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It took Sanders just two years to become debt-free thanks to a solid plan, persistence, and patience. With the right steps, you can do the same.
The Best way to pay off credit card debt
1. Stop the bleeding
The first step in getting out of credit card debt is to quit using credit as much as possible. Sure, your cash flow might be negative at this point, so relying on a bit of credit for a couple more months could be warranted. But you should make a concerted effort to cut all unnecessary swiping immediately. “Charging more, or applying for new credit cards, will only slow the process down and negate any work you’re doing,” says Leslie Tayne, debt resolution attorney, best-selling author and founder of Tayne Law Group.
In fact, Sanders says quitting her credit habit was the first thing she did, too.
“I hid my cards in a drawer making it hard to use when I was out and about,” she says. “I was nervous to cut them up so hiding them did well for me.”
2. Take stock of the damage
Next, you need to understand exactly what shape your finances are in. Start by listing all of your credit card accounts along with the balance and interest rate. This will come in handy later when you decide how to tackle your debt.
If you’re not sure how many accounts you currently have to your name, pull your credit reports to double check. You can request a free copy of each of your reports from the three credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion — once per year for free at Annualcreditreport.com. They should list all of the accounts you own, as well as the current balances and what standing they’re in.
3. Create a budget
Ah, the dreaded “B” word. The thought of putting together a budget might bring on a sense of fear or anxiety, especially if you haven’t been managing your spending. However, it’s a crucial step in this process. It doesn’t have to be daunting, but it does have to be done.
“It can be difficult to look at yourself through such a critical lens, but only when you pinpoint the problem can you work to find the solution,” Tayne says. “Knowing the cause will allow you to accurately plan how to address it.” For example, if you’re only making the minimum payments on your cards, you might need to free up room in your budget to put more towards your credit card payments. If you used your credit cards in a crisis, you might need to beef up your emergency savings.
To start, physically writing down all your income and expenses for the month can be a good practice to get acquainted with your finances and make the situation seem more real. However, once you get a handle on your budget, you can use a free tool to do the tracking for you.
Sanders says that when she was ready to tackle her debt, she looked very closely at her budget and what she was spending.
“With this tactic, I was able to cut costs, decrease payments, and find more money in my budget to put towards my debt,” she says.
Once you look through your budget and determine how much you can afford to pay toward credit cards each month, that amount should be a budget line item, just like any other expense. “If you’re having trouble holding yourself accountable, leave yourself reminders – on a desk calendar, in your phone – and include the amount you’ve set out to pay. Having goals written down will help you stick to them,” Tayne says.
4. Prioritize payments
Remember that list of debts you created? Now is the time to put together a plan for eliminating them. When it comes to paying off credit card debt, there are two strategies that are particularly effective: the “debt snowball” and the “debt avalanche.”
The debt snowball is a good strategy for people who need to experience wins early in the process to stay motivated. With this method, you pay as much as you can toward the credit card with the lowest balance, and pay the minimum on all the rest. Once you pay off that card, take that amount and roll it into your payment on the next-highest balance, and so on (like a snowball — get it?). Since you focus on the smallest balance first, you see progress right away.
The debt avalanche is best if you’re interested in saving as much money as possible. Rather than tackling the smallest balance first, you focus on the highest interest rate. Once that card is paid off, you roll your payment into that of the next-highest interest card, and so on.
Sanders says she found success with the debt snowball.
“I began to pay the smallest card off first, giving the sense of accomplishment so that I could keep going. It didn’t take long until I was completely credit card debt free,” she says.
5. Use different debt options
Besides throwing every spare dollar at your credit card debt, there are additional options to pay it off faster.
One of those options is debt consolidation, which involves taking out one low-interest loan to pay off all your existing credit cards. Then, you focus on paying back the single loan at a usually lower rate. Since personal loans tend to offer lower interest rates than traditional credit cards (as low as 6% with good credit), they are a helpful option for consolidating debt, paying it off faster, and potentially saving money in the process.
Another option is performing a balance transfer. Credit card companies often entice new customers by offering the option to transfer a balance from another card issuer. Often, balance transfers include a year or more of 0% intro APR before the regular interest rate kicks in. That gives you time to pay down the balance since 100% of your payments go to the principal. Just be sure to get rid of the debt before the introductory period is over. And keep in mind that balance transfers usually require a fee of 3% to 5% of the balance.
6. Try negotiating
Call up and ask for a lower rate. Credit card companies would rather keep their existing good customers than have to go find new ones, so if you have a history of making payments on time, your issuer might be willing to negotiate.
Call the number on the back of your card to speak with a representative and inquire about getting your rate lowered. If they can’t help you, ask to speak with a supervisor; some reps might not be aware of the company’s policies or have the power to make a decision. Be sure to mention that you’ve been a reliable customer (if that’s true) and that you’ve received offers for a lower rate from competitors.
If your issuer does agree to lower your rate, get it in writing. You’ll want proof of the rate change in case you run into problems later.
7. Enlist help if you need it
Sometimes going at it alone isn’t enough. You might want to consider working with an accredited credit counselor, who can work with you to come up with a plan for paying off your debt. The U.S. Department of Justice offers a directory for locating approved credit counseling agencies by state and judicial district.
If your debt is really out of control, you might want to pursue debt settlement. This involves negotiating the debt and paying a reduced amount to your creditor. Settling for less than you owe will be reflected on your credit report but is worth it if your debt is too big to reasonably handle.
“Before signing up with any debt relief service, do your research and make sure they are reputable,” warns Tayne.
She says that it is possible to take on the task of settling credit card debt on your own but hiring a debt settlement attorney will likely give you better results. “A professional will be well-versed in what creditors are looking for and will be your best bet going up against large national banks, credit unions, collection agencies, and multiple legal representatives,” Tayne says.
8. Consider bankruptcy as a last resort
It can be tempting to pursue bankruptcy as a magic bullet for your debt woes. However, going this route can be time consuming, expensive, and result in lasting damage to your credit. In fact, a bankruptcy can stay on your credit report for up to 10 years. It’s up to you to decide whether falling behind on credit card payments or having a bankruptcy on your record would be the more damaging situation.
Also keep in mind that if the bankruptcy judge determines that you have enough income, you’ll likely be granted a Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Chapter 13 requires you to agree to a payment plan and pay off your debts over time. Unlike Chapter 7, which involves liquidating your assets to pay off your debts. Try a combination of the strategies above to pay off debt first. You avoid the whole bankruptcy process, the cost of hiring a bankruptcy attorney, and the negative mark on your credit.
9. Remember why you’re doing this
Paying off credit card debt is tough, and there will be times when you feel defeated and unmotivated. That’s why it’s so important to remember why you embarked on this journey in the first place.
“My parents went into debt and worked their butts off to provide for us. I want to provide for my children without having to work so hard,” says Sanders.
“Debt-free living, abiding by our budget, and living within our means will give us that freedom we’ve always wanted.”
So figure out what living debt-free would mean to you and write it down. It’s normal to get discouraged, but don’t let it hold you back. You’ve got this.