If you find yourself already staring at a mountain of credit card debt, you need a plan of attack to stop the bleeding. Without one, credit card balances will continue to accrue interest and cost you hundreds or even thousands of dollars in interest. Consider that a $10,000 balance with an APR of 16 percent paid off over a period of two years costs around $1,750 due to compounding interest (you’re paying interest on interest, which is calculated at the end of each payment period). The same balance at a 20 percent APR costs around $2,215. And if you’re only able to do is make the minimum payment on your credit cards, you may eventually find yourself drowning in debt that could hurt not only your credit score but also your overall quality of life.
About half of all Americans owe money to at least one credit card company. In fact, the average person owes $5,313 in credit card debt, according to the Experian 2020 Consumer Credit Review. It is common for people to get into serious debt racking up as much as $10,000 or more on revolving credit card accounts that allow users to spend as much as they like up to their card’s credit limit.
So, how do you get out of credit card debt as fast as possible? It will take some resolve and discipline, but it’s possible to dig yourself out of overwhelming debt with the right approach. Follow this guide to conquer the credit card debt that’s suffocating you and breathe easier.
Evaluate your finances and spending
The first step is to calculate how much you owe and consider the reasons why you are overwhelmed with debt.
How much do you owe?
There is no easy way around this: you need to be realistic about the amount of credit card debt you’re in. Add up everything you owe on credit cards and all other monthly payments, both secured and unsecured debt. It might be downright alarming to see the final number, but this financial assessment is an important first step in finding out where you are and developing a plan to get out of credit card debt. Include the balance and annual percentage rate (APR) of each credit card on your list, as this will show you what debts to attack first.
How to avoid credit card debt
Credit cards can make it easy to get over your head in debt. Furthermore, carrying a high balance-to-limit ratio from month to month, known as credit utilization ratio, can be damaging to your credit score especially if you’re doing it with multiple credit cards. Keeping a low balance or, ideally, paying it off completely each month is the best way to avoid a potential revolving debt nightmare.
Next, you need to compare your overall debt and expenses to your income. When calculating your overall debts and expenses, take into account your mortgage, rent payments, personal and student loan debt, credit and store card balances, car loans, utilities, grocery bills, medical bills, and anything else you owe money on or that is an essential expenditure.
When calculating income, take into account your salary, earned interest on savings, and anything else that generates money.
What got you into debt?
Credit card companies lure you in with enticing rewards program offers, low introductory interest rates or 0 percent APR, and the flexibility and freedom of swiping and forgetting, which leads people down a path of thinking they can afford a lifestyle beyond their actual means.
But a credit card statement will assuredly come due every month, and low introductory APRs eventually expire. The typical APR range for credit cards is 14-23 percent. This means if you use a credit card just once for a significant charge, toss it in a drawer, and continue to pay only the monthly minimum, it could potentially take decades to pay it off while it continues draining your wallet with interest.
Not all credit card debt is the result of frivolous or absentminded spending. Sometimes there are emergencies in life that require the use of credit. Perhaps you didn’t take the initiative to build up a savings safety net, or maybe it just wasn’t enough. An unexpected job loss or medical emergency can also throw you into dire financial straits.
Other times, getting into debt is avoidable. Are you eating out too often? Do you really need that new 60-inch 4k OLED TV? Maybe you have a weakness for buying clothes or tech gadgets that has gotten out of control. Be honest with yourself about what got you into trouble, so you can put a stop to it immediately.
Assess and prioritize your spending
Create a budget
First, determine your post-tax income from all sources, which is what goes into your pocket after taxes and other withdrawals, such as health insurance, have been taken out. This is what you have to work with.
Then, start with the essentials. Housing, food, and clothing are basic needs and must take priority when creating a budget. Next, you need to cover at least the minimums on all secured debts such as your car or home. These are collateral or other assets that can be taken away if you fail to make timely payments on them.
Also, even though student loans are not a secured debt, it is essential to make your payments on these as well. The federal government can impose financial punishment on you if you default on student loan repayment in the form of wage, tax refund, or Social Security benefits garnishment. Taxes are also non-negotiable and must be prioritized.
After you have taken into account secured debt, student loans, and taxes, conform your budget to your financial goals. Your first goal is to get out of credit card debt, obviously, and we’ll get to what to do about credit card payments below. But other important questions to ask yourself when budgeting for the future are whether you’d like to buy a house, have children or add to your family, get a new car, travel, and when you’d like to retire. Consider the savings required for these things as you determine what you can afford going forward, given your existing essential expenditures and debt elimination goals.
Budgeting apps like Mint and YNAB can be valuable tools to track spending and help stay on target. Many banks also enable features such as text alerts on your phone whenever your debit or credit card is used or when your balance dips below a set threshold. Set them up to always be in the know.
Debt reduction and elimination strategies
Cut and manage expenses
In order to pay off debt as quickly as possible, you’ll need to be very cognizant of your spending habits and free up money wherever you can. You may not have the ability to take on a second job or work out a pay increase at your current one, but cutting expenses is the best way to give yourself a raise. There are myriad, often overlooked ways to do this. Consider some of the following:
- Eat and drink at home. Try discount and wholesale stores like Aldi, Costco, or Trader Joe’s for groceries. Shop weekly specials. Trade out your daily coffee shop splurge for a thermos of joe brewed at home.
- Change your transportation. Trade in a large or luxury vehicle that is more than you need for a more economical car with better gas mileage. Walk or bike short distances when weather permits.
- Be more energy efficient. Turn off lights when you’re not using them, trade out traditional incandescent lightbulbs for LED, open windows instead of blasting the air conditioner, and take shorter showers.
- Lower the cost of regular purchases. Many generic or store brand items are exactly the same products as name brands and can save you dollars that really add up over time.
- Use auto pay. Consider putting essential expenses on auto-debit when discounts are offered. Cell phone companies frequently discount your bill if you do this, and some student loan programs also offer small decreases in your interest rate.
- Cancel unnecessary subscriptions. Cancel services you don’t really use or need such as cable and streaming services. Switch to Redbox for video rentals, or check out your local library’s selection and get them for free. Do the same with books instead of buying them.
- Cancel overpriced memberships. Get rid of unused memberships for things such as gyms, country clubs, or professional associations that don’t benefitting you. Invest in a few weights and some modest home gym equipment, if necessary, or one-time cost options that are cheaper in over the long term.
- Consign and sell goods. Consignment can be an excellent way to both make and save money. Consider selling furniture or antiques you aren’t attached to. Shop consignment for higher-end, lightly worn clothing especially for one-time engagements and special events like weddings. Likewise, older coin collections and similar items can often be sold for a significant profit.
- Fix things yourself. Learn how to do standard maintenance and minor home improvements yourself rather than paying someone else to do it. This can include changing your own oil, doing simple appliance repairs, replacing an old faucet, installing trim, and interior and exterior painting.
Remember your number one goal is to pay off debt, so the important thing when cutting back spending is to put as much of the money saved as possible toward paying down your credit card balances. We cover the most effective strategies for doing this in an upcoming section.
Increase your income
This may not be feasible in your given circumstances, but extra earned income can get you to your goal of being credit card debt free faster. Get a second job if possible, or pick up some extra shifts at your existing one.
Plenty of side hustles can be quite profitable. Some common options include:
- Become an Uber, Lyft, or food delivery driver
- Rent out a spare room on Airbnb or get a roommate
- Use your skillset to do freelance work on Upwork, Fiverr, or similar platforms
- Sell homemade crafts or items on Etsy
- Become an online tutor or language teacher
- Clean houses
- Walk dogs or babysit
- Give music lessons
Did you know you can even sell your long hair or get paid for donating plasma?
Do you have children who are always pestering you for cash? Rather than giving an allowance out of the kindness of your heart, have your kids pitch in with chores and earn it. It will free up your time to focus on a second job or side hustle meanwhile the kids build character and learns financial discipline.
Pay down your credit cards: three strategies that work
Once you’ve taken the aforementioned steps and you’re ready and positioned to pay off debt, the next step is to chose your payoff strategy. In the event that you have only a single burdensome debt, the approach to take is a no-brainer: simply make the biggest monthly payment you can manage without it interfering with your other financial obligations until the debt is paid off. Not too complicated.
Most people, however, have multiple creditors, so this approach doesn’t work.
When dealing with numerous credit card accounts that need to be paid down, there are three main proven, effective strategies that people commonly employ.
The debt snowball strategy
In some circumstances, people who are down-and-out over credit card debt benefit from the psychological boost of paying off a single debt as quickly as possible. This is where the snowball approach can be an advantage.
In the debt snowball strategy, a debtor aggressively attacks their smallest debt first by paying as much as they can toward it until the debt is gone. Meanwhile, they pay just the monthly minimum on all other credit cards. Once the first balance is paid off, the debtor would move on to the card with the second lowest balance and continue with the same formula.
This method of debt elimination is notable for the sense of accomplishment it provides. It can also be helpful for individuals who might otherwise struggle to stick to a repayment plan when they can clearly see its efficacy.
The debt avalanche strategy
The debt avalanche strategy takes a different approach by tackling the credit card debt with the highest interest rate first since it is the most costly, and so on down to the card with the lowest interest rate. By persistently chipping away at your most expensive accounts, your balances and the amount of interest you’re paying on them gradually decrease, building momentum as they go, until they start to fall away in ever greater waves and disappear completely.
Each time an account is paid off, more money is freed up to pay toward the next debt, which costs less in interest than the one prior. In the end, you’ll pay less overall and get out of credit card debt faster using the avalanche method.
As with the debt snowball method, you’ll pay only the monthly minimum on all other cards as you pay off the first, highest interest rate card.
The debt blizzard strategy
The debt blizzard strategy is simply a combination of the first two strategies. A debtor first uses a debt snowball approach to knock out their smallest debt for a quick win, then switches to the avalanche approach to save the most money on interest charges. In some cases, debtors employ the debt snowball approach to eliminate any debts under $1,000 or so and then make the switch to the debt avalanche method.
Finding the debt elimination method that works best for you is a matter of personal preference and knowing what will keep you sticking to a payoff plan, which is the most important thing. In the long run, the debt avalanche approach is the biggest money saver and is ideal if you can hold yourself accountable to it.
Whichever route you go, consistently making on-time payments is key. Your payment history is one of the most important factors in determining your credit score.
Other payoff strategies
A balance transfer may be an excellent option for you when trying to eliminate credit card debt, provided you can qualify for a balance transfer credit card with a 0 percent APR and pay off the entire balance within the allotted time frame, typically 12-18 months.
A balance transfer, also called credit card refinancing, transfers a higher interest rate debt to a card with a zero interest promotional period (or a card with a lower interest rate). The catch is that you’ll need very good credit to qualify for such an offer (690 or higher), and balance transfers usually have a one-time fee of 3-5 percent of the amount being transferred. Before opting to go this route, calculate whether you will save enough on interest in the long run to outweigh the cost of the fee.
Once the 0 percent APR introductory period is over, the remaining balance will be charged standard interest rates, so it’s important to be sure you can pay off the debt completely or close to it before that time is up. The credit cards below provide a 0% APR balance transfer introductory period.
Credit card consolidation
If paying off credit card debt outright is not possible, a consolidation loan could be an answer. A personal loan with a lower APR, if you’re approved for one, may enable you to pay off credit card debt all at once and eliminate the hassle of dealing with multiple statements, due dates, and interest rates.
It may also improve your credit score. Since a personal loan is an installment loan, its balance-to-limit ratio doesn’t damage your credit the way that a high utilization ratio on revolving credit has the potential to. Paying off credit cards quickly this way can actually be good for your credit report.
In addition to making managing your debts easier, a low interest rate credit card consolidation loan can save you money since they’re often lower than credit card APRs and your monthly payment won’t change.
That being said, it can be difficult to obtain a low interest rate loan if you have bad credit, and some loans carry an origination fee. They can also be risky if you are unable to follow the terms of the loan, so be sure you are capable and responsible enough to make consistent timely payments and not use the extra credit to run up more debt.
Credit counseling and debt management plans
Credit counseling can be a good idea for debtors who find themselves completely overwhelmed and looking for professional help.
When you consult a credit counseling agency, you will be paired with a credit counselor who acts as a coach. This individual is a highly trained expert who will evaluate your financial situation and ask for information on a variety of financial topics including what you owe, your income, your assets, and your goals. Depending on the status of your financial health, they may recommend different plans of action, from adhering to a straightforward budget to filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in extreme situations.
How do debt management plans work
If your financial situation is serious, one recommendation credit counselors may make is a Debt Management Plan, or DMP. When you participate in a DMP, you hand over the management of your debts to the agency’s specialized debt management team. In a nutshell, the team will contact your creditors to work out an affordable repayment plan, usually with lower interest rates. You’ll then make a single monthly payment and emerge credit card debt-free in 3-5 years, rather than the 9-15 it can take when you’re only making minimum payments.
This a good plan to follow if your goal is getting a single, lowest amount possible payment and paying off your debt in a set and relatively quick timeframe while preserving your credit score. A DMP does not require a certain credit score or involve a loan nor will you need to negotiate with your creditors.
Credit counseling in itself and enrollment in a DMP doesn’t damage your credit score, though certain facets of the program can effect it in minor ways. A DMP is vastly preferable to debt settlement, however, and trouble securing new credit and loans once you’re done with a DMP is almost unheard of. Furthermore, non-profit credit counseling agencies offer counseling sessions free of charge, so you have nothing to lose by talking to a professional.
Debt settlement is an alternative for individuals who simply cannot afford to make their current credit card payments and works by reducing the balances by means of a settlement agreement. It comes at the cost of your credit score, which suffers considerable damage at a drop of around 100 points on average, but this drop is about half as much as bankruptcy would cost you. After debt settlement, it will take some time to rebuild your credit, and the record of your participation in a debt relief program remains on your credit report for 7 years.
By contrast to a DMP, when you enroll in a debt relief plan, the debt settlement company will advise you to stop paying your creditors altogether. Instead, you will pay money into an escrow savings account while the debt relief company negotiates with your creditors in an attempt to settle your debt for a fraction of what you owe. Once you’ve accumulated enough in escrow, you pay your creditors an agreed-upon, reduced amount in one lump sum payment.
How to avoid debt settlement scamd
The debt relief industry is rife with scammers and debt settlement companies who charge exorbitant fees, so it’s important to do your homework and make sure you chose a legitimate debt settlement company that is licensed in your state. Check with the Federal Trade Commission and local consumer protection agency to make sure they aren’t banned and have no complaints registered against them. Also, see SuperMoney’s list of the best debt relief companies.
If you’re truly at the end of your rope, completely swallowed up by debt you cannot hope to pay with no other promising options, bankruptcy can offer a fresh start. But because it is so injurious to your credit, filing for a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy should only be considered as a last resort once every other idea has come up short.
If you think bankruptcy may be your best option, you’ll need to find a qualified attorney to represent you. Once you’ve chosen a lawyer, he will instruct you on the next steps and ask you to submit comprehensive documentation of your finances including all secured and unsecured debts, bank accounts, assets, investments, retirement accounts, personal property, tax information, and more. In the event that you are served and receive notice that a creditor plans to sue you for a judgment, your attorney will handle this as well.
How does filing for bankruptcy work?
At the appropriate time, your attorney will file the bankruptcy with the proper authorities. Once the bankruptcy is discharged, all eligible debts will be written off by your creditors, and you will owe nothing. This may take a matter of only 3-4 months if you file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, the most common type of personal bankruptcy. If your circumstances make a Chapter 13 bankruptcy the more appropriate filing, you will make monthly payments to your creditors for a period of 3-5 years.
There are a few differences between the two types of personal bankruptcy. As mentioned, a Chapter 13 filing will require you to repay all or part of your debts but allows you to keep your property. A Chapter 7 filing may require you to surrender some of your property but does not require repayment. Furthermore, it is important to note that certain types of debt are not dischargeable in a bankruptcy; these include tax claims, spousal or child support, student loans, and debts not listed in your bankruptcy filing.
Why is it so important to get out of credit card debt fast?
Carrying considerable credit card debt can damage your credit rating. It also takes much longer to pay off bills when you never make more than the minimum payments. That means you end up paying many times what you owe in interest. Depending on how much you owe and the interest rate, you could pay more than double what you first charged.
Credit card debt also stands in the way of a secure financial future. People without large debts are more likely to own a home, drive a reliable car, and pay lower interest rates. Individuals with good credit enjoy lower rates on insurance, phone plans, and even satellite TV. Getting rid of debt means you can retire earlier, if that’s your goal, and enjoy your retirement with fewer worries.
Develop and practice smart financial habits
You probably didn’t get into credit card debt overnight, and you’re not going to get out of it that quickly either. It takes persistence and time to pay off your debt, but it is possible with self discipline and the right game plan. Once accomplished, it is essential to practice smart financial habits.
Take a lesson from your experience and commit to practicing financial responsibility in the future. Be conscientious and proactive in debt prevention. Change the behavior or circumstances that got you into debt in the first place, so it doesn’t happen again. Know the difference between “wants” and “needs,” stick to your budget, and always make your monthly payments on time moving forward.
There is help if you need it
Figuring out what to do about overwhelming credit card debt can be daunting to say the least. But remember that you’re not alone, and you do have options. SuperMoney has many tools designed to help you determine your best course of action and ease your financial burden. These tools are at your disposal for free and might prove valuable in making your credit card debt more manageable, so take advantage of them today.
Lara is a personal finance writer that enjoys helping people live a balanced life. She covers the essentials — think budgeting and healthcare — and the finer things in life, such as food, travel, and design. In her free time, she enjoys reading, climbing, and cooking up globe-spanning fare for her favorite people.