Everybody with a credit card knows it's smart to pay what you owe at the end of every month - right? According to CardWeb.com, an international credit card tracker, credit card debt is approximately $9000 per household for those carrying at least one credit card. Internet shopping increases the temptation to overspend, since cash or checks are rarely an option if you're online to shop.
Holiday spending is a notoreous time when consumers rack up their credit card bills. According the Cardweb.com, Americans racked up just over $115 billion in retail spending on their credit and debit cards during the 2003 holiday shopping season and that doesn't include store credit cards. Spending on cards is up about 7% from last year, twice the expected growth rate.
This becomes the equivalent of around $1400 per family, which seems like a modest amount to pay off in a couple of months. "But we all know that's not how the real world works," said Don Hofreiter, a sales executive with a Glendale, Calif., corporation. "Not only do people carry balances from month to month, but they continue to charge on the same card to compound their compounding interest problems."
Escaping the Debt Set isn't easy, but it's the best path toward saving and investing for the future. Besides, zero balances eliminate the stress of debt.
Salary.com researched some of the top sources on personal finance (listed below). These 12 ways to get out of credit card debt are a compilation of what the experts recommend.
1. Stop running up balances
If you carry a balance from month to month, stop using credit cards entirely.
If you don't have the discipline for it, put the cards into storage or cut them up.
2. Find your best offer
Comb the fine print on all your card contracts to make sure you owe the most money on the card with the lowest interest rate. If not, investigate the costs of transferring balances.
Alternatively, hold on to every solicitation you receive (1 billion are sent out each year). Look for the best introductory rates, perhaps six months at 5.9 percent or lower, and consider transferring all your balances to the new card.
"You need to be extra careful with these offers, though," said Dave Demers, a planning consultant from Anchorage, Alaska. "They usually charge a 1 percent transfer fee or $50, whichever is less. But if you're transferring from several cards, you can get the $50 hit for each card.
"Also, know what your interest rate will switch to after the promotional period ends. Be sure it's not higher than the one you're switching from. If, after six months, you want to switch cards again to take advantage of another introductory offer, be certain you won't fall subject to a special penalty," Demers said.
Credit card companies protect themselves against card hopping by restricting terms on introductory rates. Sometimes they apply only if total balances are paid off within the promotional period, or worse still, kept with that bank for at least 12 months. If neither of these provisions is satisfied, you could face retroactive interest charges at the full rate the minute you transfer to another card.
3. Stop the solicitations
Sending platinum card solicitations to someone struggling with debt is like waving liquor under the nose of an alcoholic. Although it happens all the time, consumers don't have to put up with it. Section 604, subsection 1681e of the Fair Credit Reporting Act of 1997 contains language that lets consumers say no to unwanted solicitations.
So, when you've settled on the one or two credit cards that will help consolidate and eliminate your debt, contact one of the three main U.S. credit bureaus and have yourself removed from all prescreened credit offer lists. They're required to notify each other of your decision. Those credit bureaus are Equifax, Experian, and Trans Union and can be contacted at http://www.equifax.com/, http://www.experian.com/, and http://www.tuc.com/, respectively.
This action will also limit your risk of identity theft. Thieves can easily intercept solicitations, use their own name and address, and max out the card before you even know about it.
4. Pay more than the minimum
The more you pay down every month, the faster you get rid of the debt, so set your own minimum payment. Terry Savage, columnist for the Chicago Sun Times and writer of several personal finance books, gives a common example of credit card lunacy: the person who charges $2,000 and pays a $40 annual fee plus 19.8 percent interest. "If you make only the minimum monthly payments (and many people do just that)," she said, "it will take you 31 years and two months to pay off the balance! And along the way, you'll pay an additional $8,202 in finance charges."
That minimum balance box on your statement is designed to snare you into debt maintenance so the financial services company can earn interest. Scrape together every penny you can each month and send it in.
5. Cash in investments
Even the highest rate of investment returns can't compete with the interest payments due on credit cards. Cash in your savings, if you have any. If you have a life insurance policy, borrow against it. Take your time paying it back, but make sure you do. Otherwise if you die before the balance is settled, the margin plus interest will be deducted from the settlement due to the beneficiary.
6. Turn to friends and family for a loan
Some people would rather submit to root canal surgery than ask their relatives for a loan. But this can be the least costly way to crawl out of debt. And you're likely to get a favorable interest rate. Be sure to use a written agreement with an established schedule for repayment and interest rates. Pride and peer pressure should exert enough influence to ensure you pay this one off as soon as possible.
7. Consider a home equity loan
You have to own a house first, naturally, but if you qualify, a home equity loan could move you from 18 percent interest payments to 7 percent. Plus you can itemize it on your tax returns and possibly reduce the actual interest payment to 5 percent, which is about as low as you can go on debt maintenance. Meanwhile it's smart to set aside any use of credit cards in case the home equity loan creates a false sense of security and you start spending again.
8. If you have a 401(k), consider borrowing from it
Most 401(k) plans let you borrow up to 50 percent, or $50,000, whichever is smaller. Interest rates run one or two points above prime, which makes them substantially cheaper than credit cards. Plus you're actually paying yourself: Every dollar you repay goes back into your 401(k) account. However, you are paying the debt with after-tax money and the interest will be taxed again later when you finally cash out the account.
This option has consequences if you change jobs. Usually you've only got five years to pay off the debt, and if you quit your job, the debt becomes due immediately. If you can't pay then and there the amount is treated as a distribution and you'll receive a tax bill which that include a penalty if you're under 59 1/2. The best way to avoid all of this is to ensure the loan is settled before you change jobs.
9. Renegotiate terms with your creditors
You've explored all the alternatives - relatives, home equity loans, 401(k) plans - but you're still carrying a hefty balance. Now what?
Contact your creditors and ask for a new, lower repayment schedule. You could be surprised by their reaction, particularly if this is the first time you've gotten into real trouble. You could tell them you have a preapproved offer from another bank and would like them to match the terms if they wish to keep you as a client.
If it's clear you are in debt crisis, let the banks know this is a call of last resort short of filing for bankruptcy. Creditors will do what they can to protect themselves against a total loss.
10. Consider the debt doctors
Some organizations specialize in guiding people out of the maze of debt. The one most people have heard of is Consumer Credit Counseling Services (CCCS). If your situation is bad but not dire, check out credit counseling courses at the local community college or church.
The main task of debt doctors is to contact your creditors to get them to lower your monthly payment requirements and your interest rates. Thus you're armed with a debt repayment plan that doesn't devour your entire paycheck. But you also incur a monthly fee as high as $50.
Organizations like the CCCS are actually funded by the credit industry. While they'll propose a wide range of recommendations on how to navigate your way out of debt, one of them will not be to file for bankruptcy.
11. If all else fails, file for bankruptcy
Declaring personal bankruptcy will cost a few hundred dollars in legal fees and will stain your credit record for 10 years. But it will all be over.
There are two types of personal bankruptcy relief: Chapter 7 and Chapter 13. Chapter 7 is straight bankruptcy, which allows the discharge of most debts except for alimony, child support, taxes, loans obtained through filing false financial statements, loans not listed in the bankruptcy petition, legal judgments against the petitioner, and student loans. While you won't have to repay most of your creditors, you may have to give up much of the property you own to help satisfy the debt.
Chapter 13 is known as the "wage-earner plan" - you keep your property, but are ordered to surrender control of your finances to the bankruptcy court. It will approve a repayment plan based on your resources that pays off all or part of your debt over a three- to five-year period. Meanwhile, there's a moratorium on creditors harassing you. No interest charges are incurred during this time, and when all provisions of the court-approved plan are met, you emerge debt-free.
12. Create a budget and live by it
Technically this should be the first step, but it may not be possible to create a budget until you've settled your accounts and counted what's left over, if anything. This may be the time to ask yourself the tough questions such as what it is about your lifestyle that allows debt to happen in the first place. Is your apartment or house more expensive than your income allows? Are you a shopaholic? Are you having too much fun? And so on. If any of these factors is precipitating debt, consider taking aggressive steps before trouble starts again.
Sources and further reading
To read more about budgets, see the Salary.com article "Personal Budget Planning Builds Household Wealth". In addition, the following sources are guides to getting out of debt.
Fisher, Sarah Young and Susan Shelly, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Personal Finance in your 20s and 30s, MacMillan Distribution, March 1999.
Heady, Robert K. and Christy Heady, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Managing Your Money, MacMillan Distribution, December 1998.
Bamford, Janet et al., The Consumer Reports Money Book: How to get It, Save It and Spend it Wisely (3rd ed.), Consumer Reports Books, November 1997.
Gardner, David and Tom Gardner, The Motley Fool Investment Workbook, Fireside, January 1998.
Naylor, W. Patrick, 10 Steps to Financial Success: A Beginner's Guide to Saving and Investing, John Wiley & Sons, April 1997.
Quinn, Jane Bryant, Making the Most of Your Money, Simon & Schuster, November 1997.