How To Freeing Yourself From Credit Card Debt
You already know a lot about credit cards. You’ve heard that consumer debt in this country-particularly credit-card debt-is at an all-time high, while our savings rate is lower than ever before. You realize that the boom in online shopping, with its absolute dependence on credit cards, is further fueling their use. You are well aware that running a balance on your plastic-and paying the unconscionable interest rates that come with it-is one of our most basic and widespread financial blunders. And you suspect that the sheer volume of direct-mail credit-card solicitations with low teaser rates must be devastating the forests of northern Idaho.
Still, credit cards are a fact of 21st century life, and it only makes sense to understand how to use them wisely. While it’s probably impractical to keep all plastic out of your wallet, it is prudent to limit the number of cards you have, and, of course, to pay all balances in full every month. Indeed, having only a traditional American Express card, which doesn’t allow you to carry a balance, can be an excellent way to impose fiscal discipline on you and your family-although, as the Visa ads point out, not everyone accepts American Express. For the rest of us, who do occasionally dabble in credit-card debt, here are a few ways to keep your habit under control.
Take advantage of frequent-flier programs tied to credit cards, but keep in mind that interest payments on a high balance can quickly turn "free" flights into outrageously expensive ones. At a dollar per mile, running up a debt of 25,000 may get you a plane ticket, but it will also saddle you with $4,500 in yearly interest payments, assuming an 18% annual rate.
Look very closely at credit-card offers before you bite. Obviously, most of those 2.99% and 3.99% rates will be in effect for only a few months. But there may be other catches as well. Making a late payment, even if it arrives only a day after it was due, may immediately trigger a permanent rate hike. Also, low initial rates sometimes apply only to transferred balances, and you could get charged a fee for making the transfer. Check, too, to see whether there is an annual fee, or charges for exceeding your credit limit or even for closing an account.
Avoid amazing grace-period tricks. What you’re looking for is a provision that says you’ll never be charged interest as long as you pay your bill in full by the due date. But some cards have no grace period, calculating interest from the moment you make a purchase, while others give you only a limited time after making a charge before interest is imposed. That period of 20 days or so may end before your payment is due.
Don’t forget to cancel cards you no longer use. If you don’t, they’ll show up on credit reports, and that could be a problem, particularly if you’re applying for a home mortgage. Your would-be lender may be reluctant to make a loan to someone who has a cumulative credit-card limit of $50,000, $100,000, or even more.
Debt is a way of life for many Americans. We owe money on our homes, our cars, our possessions (from furniture to clothes), and our education. Many Americans are so mired in debt they aren’t even sure just how much they owe and to whom -- even worse they sometimes don’t even remember just what caused their debt.
Some debt is good for you. For example, what you owe on your home can provide a nice way to balance out your income tax. A little debt is not a bad thing either as making regular payments to various creditors helps build your credit rating which makes it easier for you to obtain loans at good rates. However the truth is that most Americans have more than a little debt-and many owe far too much money and are already, or soon will be, in financial trouble as a result.
Finding yourself owing a lot of money is not the end of the road and you can stop your cycle of debt by taking four positive steps to break the cycle.
First, attack your high-cost debts. This likely includes credit cards where you may be paying high minimum payments and high interest rates. Pay off the balances on credit cards carrying the highest interest rates first. Continue making your minimum payments for lower-interest cards but concentrate on paying off the highest interest. When the high-cost cards are paid off then work to eliminate the balances on your other cards.
Second, reach out to your creditors. If you are going to be late or have difficulty paying your minimum payments then contact the credit card company. Even if you can make all your payments in a timely fashion there are two benefits you can reap from contacting the card issuer. First, you may be able to negotiate lower rates or more favorable terms. Second, they might be able to recommend alternatives that can minimize damage to your credit rating.
Third, debt consolidation as much as possible. You can accomplish this a number of ways. One possibility is simply transferring balances from one credit card to another with a lower rate, but be aware of transfer fees before choosing this option. Another possibility, if you own your own home, is to take out a home-equity loan or line of credit which should have a lower interest rate than most credit cards can offer as well as offering tax deductions. Finally, you can also consider a secured loan offering the value in another form of property, your vehicle for example.
Fourth, don’t sacrifice your retirement savings. Obviously paying off your debt should be a high financial priority but cutting what you save for retirement to do so may not be the wisest course -- especially if that becomes a long term habit or if you are losing out on your employer’s matching funds as a result. Perhaps you may be able to borrow against (or from) your retirement funds at a lower interest rate which will allow you to continue to save for retirement while also getting out from under your debt.
While owing money may well be the American way it can also be a tremendous burden to bear. You can shed the weight of your load or at least trim it down to a more manageable level by taking these four steps.