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Here’s Our Best Advice on Paying Off Credit Cards

By Rachel Sanborn Lawrence

If you have credit card debt, you might recognize the feeling: “I know I should do something about this but am so not ready to deal with it today.” On repeat, every time the bill comes (plus extra guilt every time you pull the card out again). Yup. People tell us this all the time.

Here’s Our Best Advice on Paying Off Credit Cards

But making a dent in that credit card debt — or even paying it off completely? That feels fantastic. We aren’t going to lie to you: Whether you have a lot of debt or a little, paying it down can be a journey.

Across all households in the US, the average credit card balance is $5,700. But if you look at just the 41% of US households who actually carry a balance, that number jumps to more than $9,300. And it affects women and other groups more than others.

Here’s our best advice to help you start paying down your credit card debt so you can find that great feeling.

Why credit card debt hurts so much

Because the interest rates are really high — as of today, the average in the US is almost 18%. Most other forms of debt — student loans, personal loans, etc — don’t have interest rates this high. That’s why we typically recommend paying only the minimum on those while you focus on paying off credit card debt first.

When you make minimum payments, that money goes toward any unpaid interest first. And then you can get charged interest on your unpaid interest. Aka it compounds. All of which means your minimum payments might not make much of a dent in the underlying balance — if any.

It would take over 17 years to pay off her $9,300 balance. And she’d pay $8,600 in interest.

Let’s take an example. Say “Kristina” owes $9,300 in credit card debt, and her interest rate is 17.8%. The terms of her repayment schedule say the minimum payment is 3% of the balance or $25, whichever is greater (pretty typical).

If Kristina made only minimum payments, it would take over 17 years to pay off her $9,300 balance. And she’d pay $8,600 in interest.

Yes, you read that right — it means, when it’s all said and done, Kristina will have ended up paying almost twice as much as she owed in the first place. For 17 years.

One thing to do before you start paying off your credit cards

A lot of people — including us here at Ellevest — will tell you to pay off high-interest debt (especially if it has a really high interest rate, like with credit cards) before you start investing. But there’s one exception: getting your employer 401(k) match.

If your employer is offering to put money into your 401(k) for you, take them up on the offer. Get that free money! Your credit card interest rates would have to be weirdly high to make it worth waiting until your debt’s paid off. So contribute as much as you need to in order to get that full match … and then focus on your credit cards.

Tackling your credit card debt

The good news is that every little bit of work you put in to pay it down is a win that can help motivate you to keep going. Here’s some advice and other info that can help you do it.

If you have money in savings, use it

If you have an established emergency fund or some non-retirement investments, then the idea of emptying them can feel … uncomfortable. But the math says to do it.

Truth: 18% interest is going to cost you way more than you’d earn in a savings account, or even than what history says you could earn in an investment account. It’s just not worth waiting.

If the idea of having zero savings makes you nervous, you might keep $1,000 or so in a savings account. But if you have more than that right now, we recommend putting it toward your credit card debt. We don’t advise taking any money from your retirement investment accounts, since that would hit you with some serious tax penalties — but taxable investment accounts might be fair game, too.

Don’t spend any more money on the cards

Unless you’re dealing with a financial emergency right now, stop using your cards until you can pay down your debt. Some people might tell you to cut them up, but we aren’t going to go that far — there’s always a chance that you’ll need them in an emergency later.

Make a payoff plan

Organize your money

We like the 50/30/20 rule as a high-level, flexible way to organize your money. That means that 50% of your take-home pay goes to needs, 30% to fun, and 20% to “Future You” (debt, saving, investing). If you can’t squeeze out that last 20% right now, that’s OK. Even 1% is way better than zero. So just start with whatever you can do now, and then work your way up.

Here’s how debt fits in: Minimum monthly payments go in that “50% to needs” bucket. (Put those on autopay, if you can.) Anything above and beyond the minimums goes in the “20% to Future You” bucket. And paying more than your monthly minimums, if you can, is the thing that can really help speed you along because it can actually make a dent in your underlying balance — not just the interest you owe. That’s what helps you avoid that 17-years-and-paying-twice-as-much situation described above.

Decide which balance to pay off first

All right, so now you have 20% (or 1%, or 5%, or 10%) of your budget ready to go to extra debt payments. If you have multiple credit cards, where do you put your money?

Two schools of thought here. First is the one we typically recommend: putting your entire “extra” payment on the credit card balance that has the highest interest rate. Knocking that debt out first can save you the most money on interest. After that one’s paid off, then focus on the balance with the second-highest interest rate, and so on. This is called the “debt avalanche” method.

But if you find that you need a little extra motivation, you might try the “debt snowball” method. (Yeah, snow metaphors, we don’t 100% get it either.) This one involves focusing on the debt with the smallest balance first, and then moving to the second-smallest. The idea here is that it will take the least time for you to pay off the smallest balance, and the sooner you can check off a win, the more momentum you might have to keep going.

Try to lower your interest rate

Ask your current provider

You might be able to get your credit card issuer to lower your interest rate, which could save you a lot over the long term. How? By calling and asking.

Before you call, gather the facts: How long you’ve had an account, how many on-time payments you’ve made in a row, how much you’ve paid in interest in the past year. Also poke around online to see if there are other credit cards out there offering lower rates.

If you have a low credit score, it might be worth it to spend some time bringing that number up before you ask. Or, if you ask and they say no, you could try to boost your score and then ask again.

Consider balance transfers

There are a lot of credit cards out there with balance transfer offers. That means if you move your credit card debt from your current provider over to them, they’ll give you a super-low (or maybe even 0%) interest rate for a while, as a promotion.

Once the promotional period is over, the interest rate will jump up to the card’s normal rate. Sometimes there’s also a one-time transfer fee, which they’d typically add to your total balance. You usually have to meet certain credit score and income requirements in order to qualify.

If you think you’ll be able to pay off your balance before the promotional time limit is up, then transferring your balance could save you a lot of money. It might even be OK if you can’t pay the whole balance off in time, as long as your new interest rate wouldn’t be way higher than your interest rate now. (Just ask to make sure you won’t be charged for all the interest you would have paid if you go over that time limit. Some cards do this, and that would really hurt.)

Consider a personal loan

Another way you might be able to lower your interest rate is by combining all your balances together with a personal loan.

Here’s how it can work: If you meet the credit score and income requirements, a loan provider (usually a bank) might give you a loan big enough to cover all your credit card debt. You’d use that money to pay your credit cards off. Then you’d owe the money to the bank instead of your credit card provider(s).

There are two main benefits here. First, ideally the interest rate on the loan would be lower than the original interest rate on your credit cards. And second, the logistics of making one monthly payment to a loan provider would probably be a lot easier to manage than a bunch of individual credit card payments.

What to do if you can’t pay your credit cards back

If you can’t afford your credit cards’ minimum payments — and you don’t expect that to change — then you have options. They come with drawbacks, so they should be your last resort. But those drawbacks might be better than the potential alternatives: debt collection agencies harassing you, permanent damage to your credit, being unable to buy a house, or save, or retire, to name a few.

Try negotiating with your credit card provider

First, if there’s any way you can come up with a larger, one-time payment, you could try calling your credit card company to see if they’d be willing to settle with you. You’d offer to pay that amount today, and in exchange, they’d forgive the rest of your balance.

This offer can be attractive for credit card companies, because then at least they’d recover some of the money they lent you right away. They may not accept, but it’s definitely worth a shot.

Look into credit counseling services

If negotiating on your own isn’t an option for you, credit counseling could be the next step. A credit counselor might be able to help you negotiate a reduced payment schedule and work toward a more manageable plan going forward.

One big thing to note: Credit counseling is different from working with a debt settlement company. Those companies are similar, but they often do more harm than good. They’ll ask you to stop making credit card payments completely and put your money in a savings account instead. Then, once you have a good-sized chunk saved up, they’ll offer that amount to your credit card provider as a settlement. But the process could take years, you’d incur late fees, and your credit card provider might take you to court in the meantime. And if the credit card provider ultimately declines the settlement offer, you’d still owe the original balance and late fees — and probably charges from the debt settlement company, too — and you’d have made a big mess of your credit.

Consider filing for bankruptcy

Finally, you might be able to get your credit card debt wiped away by filing for bankruptcy.

The upsides here are that any creditors who are badgering you would have to stop, and you may be able to keep some of your assets, like your car and your house. And, of course, it could wipe out that credit card debt to give you a sort of blank slate.

The downsides are that bankruptcy stays on your credit report for seven to ten years. Plus, not all types of debts can be discharged (including student loans). And if you had a cosigner on your debt, they’d still be on the hook.

If you think bankruptcy might be the right move for you, we highly recommend finding a bankruptcy lawyer to advise you and, if you move forward, represent you throughout the process. Many of them offer payment plans for their services, and representing yourself might not be best for your bottom line.

Credit card debt is stressful, but it doesn’t have to rule your life forever. Every penny you pay off is a big win, and one more step as you take control of your financial future. That’s something to be proud of — and excited about. It’s something to feel good about.


Disclosures

Averages don’t tell the whole story, especially when it comes to groups of people who are affected by things like income inequality, hiring and wage discrimination, and lack of access to credit.

A couple of examples:

For people who are affected by multiple forms of discrimination and inequality, the effect is even greater.

© 2019 Ellevest, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The information provided should not be relied upon as investment advice or recommendations, does not constitute a solicitation to buy or sell securities and should not be considered specific legal, investment or tax advice.

All opinions and views expressed by Ellevest are current as of the date of this writing, for informational purposes only, and do not constitute or imply an endorsement of any third-party’s products or services.

The information provided does not take into account the specific objectives, financial situation or particular needs of any specific person.

Investing entails risk including the possible loss of principal and there is no assurance that the investment will provide positive performance over any period of time.

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Rachel Sanborn Lawrence

Rachel Sanborn is the Director of Advisory Services at Ellevest and a CFP® Professional. She oversees Ellevest’s career and financial planning teams and works with Ellevest clients to help them be the boss of their money.