Handling Debt Efficiently – Until It’s Gone
It’s no secret that making purchases on credit cards will result in paying more for those items over time if you’re paying interest charges from month-to-month.
Despite this well-known fact, credit card debt is at an all-time high, rising another 3% this past year.¹ The average American now owes over $6,300 in credit card debt. For households, the number is much higher, at nearly $16,000 per household.² Add in an average mortgage of over $200,000, plus nearly $25,000 of non-mortgage debt (car loans, college loans, or other loans) and the molehill really is starting to look like a mountain.
The good news? You have the potential to handle your debt efficiently and deal with a molehill-sized molehill instead of a mountain-sized one.
Focus on the easiest target first.
Some types of debt don’t have an easy solution. While it’s possible to sell your home and find more affordable housing, actually following through with this might not be a great option. Selling your home is a huge decision and one that comes with expenses associated with the sale – it’s possible to lose money. Unless you find yourself with a job loss or similar long-term setback, often the best solution to paying down debt is to go after higher interest debt first. Then examine ways to cut your housing costs last.
Freeze your spending (literally, if it helps).
Due to its higher interest rate, credit card debt is usually the first thing to tackle when you decide to start eliminating debt. Let’s be honest, most of us might not even know where that money goes, but our credit card statement is a monthly reminder that it went somewhere. If credit card balances are a problem in your household, the first step is to cut back on your purchases made with credit, or stop paying with credit altogether. Some people cut up their cards to enforce discipline. Ever heard the recommendation to freeze your cards in a block of ice as a visual reminder of your commitment to quit credit? Another thing to do is to remove your card information from online shopping sites to help ensure you don’t make mindless purchases.
Set payment goals.
Paying the minimum amount on your credit card keeps the credit card company happy for 2 reasons. First, they’re happy that you made a payment on time. Second, they’re happy if you’re only paying the minimum because you might never pay off the balance, so they can keep collecting interest indefinitely. Reducing or stopping your spending with credit was the first step. The second step is to pay more than the minimum so that those balances start going down. Examine your budget to see where there’s room to reduce spending further, which will allow you to make higher payments on your credit cards and other types of debt. In most households, an honest look at the bank statement will reveal at least a few ways you might free up some money each month.
Have a sale. To get a jump-start if money is still tight, you might want to turn some unused household items into cash. Having a community yard sale or selling your items online can turn your dust collectors into cash that you can then use toward reducing your balances.
Transfer balances prudently.
Consider balance transfers for small balances with high interest rates that you think you’ll be able to pay off quickly. Transferring that balance to a lower interest or no interest card can save on interest costs, freeing up more money to pay down the balances. The interest rates on balance transfers don’t stay low forever, however – typically for a year or less – so it’s important to make sure you can pay transferred balances off quickly. Also, check if there’s a balance transfer fee. Depending on the fee, moving those funds might not make sense.
Don’t punish yourself.
Getting serious about paying down debt may seem to require draconian measures. But there likely isn’t a need to just stay home eating tuna fish sandwiches with all the lights turned off. Often, all that’s required is an adjustment of old spending habits. If your drive home takes you past a mall where it would be too tempting to “just pick a little something up”, take a different route home. But it’s important to have a small treat occasionally as well. If you’re making progress on your debt, you deserve to reward yourself sometimes. All within your budget, of course!
Sources: ¹ Sullivan, Bob. “State of Credit: 2017.” Experian, 1.11.2018, https://bit.ly/2mrjH58. ² El Issa, Erin. “2017 American Household Credit Card Debt Study.” NerdWallet, 2017, https://nerd.me/2ht7SZg.