Credit card debt is an unfortunate reality for many today. Americans owe over $1 trillion in credit card debt, according to recent data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. And with steep interest rates and a high cost of living, the end of the road with debt can seem far away.
If you’ve been attacking debt with little progress, some small strategic steps can potentially shorten the journey.
Here’s what you can do to start digging your way out.
Understand your goals — and get motivated
Get clear on why you want to tackle debt and the opportunities that open up without it, says Gabbi Cerezo, a certified financial planner and accredited financial counselor.
Write down the reason and post it somewhere visible as a daily reminder, she says. It can also help to tape a note to your credit card, too.
Before diving right into the numbers — what you owe, and to whom — Cerezo also recommends looking to social media for inspiration.
“By getting familiar with how other people have overcome the burden of credit card debt and seeing all the methods that there are out there, it starts to become more of a possibility in your mind,” she says.
Be sure to watch out for misinformation online, even from those who have successfully paid off debt. If a strategy catches your eye, research it across reputable personal finance websites to get the experts’ take on it.
Once you’ve got a healthy dose of inspiration, refer to your credit card statements to tally up debt, interest rates and the monthly costs.
Explore options to lower interest rates
Now that you have a goal and some numbers on paper, you can start to comparison shop for low-interest options. Depending on your credit, some of those options may include:
Negotiating a lower interest rate. With a good payment history and promotional mail offers as leverage, call credit card issuers to see whether you might qualify for a reduction.
Using a balance transfer credit card. You can accelerate progress by transferring high-interest debt onto a new credit card with no annual fee and a 0% introductory APR. Look for one with a balance transfer fee of 3% or lower.
Getting a personal loan. A balance transfer credit card comes with its own credit limit, which may not be enough to handle all of your debt. In that case, a personal loan can make sense. It allows you to consolidate debts into one lower-interest fixed payment.
Creating a debt management plan. Regardless of your credit, if payments or everyday costs are becoming difficult to manage, consider consulting an expert at a nonprofit credit counseling agency. That expert can determine whether you qualify for a debt management plan that consolidates credit card debt into one single payment with a lower interest rate.
Many of these options have costs or fees attached, so calculate whether they’re cheaper than the interest you’ll otherwise pay over time on your debt. To make more of an impact, stop using credit cards and, if possible, pay more than the minimum amount due each month.
Nicole Reed, a senior budget analyst and content creator based in Virginia, used two 0% APR balance transfer credit cards to pay off around $31,000 in credit card debt in 2023.
“I sat down with those minimum balances that those cards had established and I knew I wanted to pay more,” she says.
By also applying windfalls like tax refunds, bonuses and additional income, she reached her debt-payoff goal in nine months.
Make smart money moves
Look through debit and credit card statements and eliminate unnecessary expenses, and switch to cheaper alternatives. Reed, for instance, cut back on coffee, dining out and traveling.
“You have to prioritize what’s more important to you,” she says. “Would you rather get out of the debt or would you rather have that thing?”
If you’ve exhausted these options and there still isn’t enough money to go around, consider a larger change that can supplement your income or help it go further: adding a roommate, searching for a new job, taking on a side hustle or seeking a raise.
Resolve to put any savings from your revamped budget toward the debt, an emergency fund or both. A small emergency fund can keep you from falling further into debt when an unexpected expense arises.
Work your way up to saving your first $1,000, Cerezo says. It’s hard to do, but it can prevent reliance on credit cards if money runs out, she says.
Choose your target
With multiple credit cards, all payments must be met — but you can determine which debt to prioritize. The avalanche method is the most cost-effective, as you’ll tackle the debt with the highest interest rates first. But the snowball method — in which you attack smaller debt amounts first — may work better for those seeking immediate motivation.
Set a deadline
Unless you’ve been assigned a deadline through newly negotiated terms (see above), do the math to determine how much you’ll need to pay each month to eliminate your debt.
Plan to celebrate milestones along the way with an experience or prize that won’t break the bank, Cerezo says.
Tracking progress visually can also help you stay connected to goals, and scheduling regular check-ins with your budget can offer a realistic view of any advancement or setbacks.