7 Habits That Can Help You Actually Pay Off Your Credit Card Debt, According to Money Experts
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Credit card debt happens, and it can creep up on you in no time at all — even if you’re careful about it. You might pledge to pay off your balance each month, but a few ill-timed emergencies can leave you swimming in debt for a few months or more. According to a 2020 study conducted by Nerd Wallet and the Harris Poll, the average American household has nearly $7,000 in credit card debt.
It can feel extremely stressful and overwhelming to see those numbers climb when your statement arrives, but there are steps you can take to get things under control sooner rather than later. If you’ve found yourself dealing with high interest rates, late fees, or balances spread across a few cards, you’re not alone — and these expert tips can help you take control of your credit card debt, conquer outstanding balances, and learn a few useful financial lessons along the way.
Stop using the cards and opt for cash or a debit card instead.
It sounds like the most obvious answer, but many people don’t pause their spending as they try to pay down credit card debt. While you might have the best of intentions to use all those credit card points to pay back your debt, the interest on those higher balances will compound and may make the problem worse.
“Paying off debt while continuing to charge things can make it difficult to visualize any progress towards paying off your balance. Plus, it’s harder to actually see your spending,” says Brian Walsh, a senior manager and certified financial planner at SoFi. He recommends making the temporary switch to debit cards, cash, and checks as you pay off your credit card debt, which allows you to quickly see progress as you pay off your debt, and may cause you to assess your spending habits in the moment. “People tend to pay less and appreciate items more if they paid with cash as opposed to credit,” he adds.
Make micropayments throughout the month.
While you must pay your credit card bill on or before its due date, that doesn’t mean you can’t pay it more often. Making small payments throughout the month can help reduce your balance fast.
“Micropayments are smaller payments you make to the credit card company throughout the month,” explains Bill Hardekopf, a senior industry analyst at CardRates.com. “In addition to paying off your debt faster, micropayments will also help lower your interest payments. Most issuers calculate interest based on your average daily balance during the month. You’ll lower your average balance by making smaller payments during the month. Smaller interest penalties also mean more money can be devoted to paying off the balance.”
One good place to start, Hardekopf notes, is if you decide to cook at home and stream a movie rather than going out for dinner and a movie with your partner or a friend. You can easily take the money you saved and put it towards your debt. “If [you] made a habit of doing this each time [you] made a conscious effort to save money, [you’d] be surprised how much your debt would decrease,” he says.
Make a plan — and a budget.
Give yourself a solid plan for getting out of debt by sitting down and making a budget, and allocating a certain fixed amount of money each month to your debt. “You should build out a payment schedule to keep yourself on track moving forward,” says Colleen McCreary, the chief people officer and financial advocate at Credit Karma. “Find out how much the minimum payment is, when the due date for that payment is each month, and what the interest rate is, and make a plan from there.”
McCreary advises also examining your budget and identifying where you could cut back, whether that’s on dinners out, streaming services, shopping, or something else. “If you want to get out of credit card debt quickly, paying more than the minimum payment is essential,” she shares. While it may not be fun to bid goodbye to unnecessary expenses for the interim, cutting back can help you reallocate funds to your debt and avoid climbing balances. “Making only the minimum payment should be a last resort, as you’ll find yourself accruing costly interest,” McCreary adds.
Choose a payoff strategy that works best for you.
There are many ways to pay off credit card debt, and finding a strategy that works for your habits and life is key to making progress in a way that feels actionable and digestible. “Common debt paydown strategies include paying off your balances in order of highest interest rate to lowest (avalanche approach) or by balance, lowest to highest (snowball approach),” Walsh says. Both are strategies that have been shown to work — and to motivate you to keep going. The avalanche approach means you pay the minimum on all cards, then use what’s left of your bill budget to pay the card with the highest interest. The snowball approach means you pay off the smallest debts first and then focus on the bigger ones.
While you’ll still need to pay at least the minimum amount on any credit card each month, Walsh says that using the snowball approach and focusing the bulk of efforts on one card at a time can help you reduce the number of bills you need to pay each month more quickly than the avalanche approach can.
If your debt is spread across several cards and paying it off feels really overwhelming, you may want to consider consolidating it with a well-vetted loan, then making just one payment to the entire balance instead. This approach isn’t for everyone, but according to Walsh, if you do take it, it’s key to “lock in a fixed interest rate and pay the debt off in full in a fixed amount of time,” he says. “This can save money over the course of the loan. You also have the ease of one payment instead of paying numerous cards each month.” Taking out a loan is a big financial step, so be sure to talk to a financial expert and examine the terms of your loan in depth before signing.
Set up automatic payments.
If you can, automate your minimum monthly payment to ensure you don’t miss each one, given that missing a payment can lead to late fees and increased interest. ”This will guarantee you won’t be late on all your credit card payments as long as you have enough money in your checking account to cover your auto payments,” says Thomas Creel, the founder of Creel Financial.
Find ways to make extra money to pay down debt faster.
While your personal time is important, and everyone deserves downtime, finding small ways to pad your income for the time being can help you stay motivated and work off your debt. “You could find a part-time job, start a side business, seek out a promotion and raise at your current job, and more,” says Michelle Schroeder-Gardner, the founder of Making Sense of Cents. “This is what I did to pay down my student loan debt in just seven months, and it helped me greatly.”
This goes double for any money you weren’t planning to receive, but now have at hand anyway, whether you receive money in a birthday card or any other amount. “I once paid off a credit card with a car crash insurance settlement I received,” says Jen Smith, the creator of Modern Frugality. “While I don’t necessarily recommend that method, I do think using cash windfalls such as gifts, bonuses, and tax returns to pay down credit card debt is a great financial move.”
If you find yourself on the receiving end of a windfall, put it towards your debt. “It’s no substitute for changing your spending and earning behaviors but it can be the icing on the cake of your debt payoff plan,” Smith explains.
Don’t be too hard on yourself.
Getting out of debt is tough, but you shouldn’t get down on yourself for getting into said debt in the first place. “If you fall off the wagon, get back on! It’s unrealistic to expect yourself to be perfect. Accept that there will be ups and downs, but always keep your end goal in mind,” says says Anuj Nayar, the financial health officer at LendingClub. “Be kind to yourself. Beating yourself up will not help your financial or mental health.”
To build your support system, you can think of the people closest to you as an accountability system. Be honest about your goals and your progress. “Don’t go it alone. Let friends and family know about your financial goals: talk openly and honestly,” Nayar says. “If you have a partner, consider having a regular money date to talk [about] all [the] things stressing you out about your finances.”