How to Start Fighting Debt — Today
Having once had $20,000 of credit card debt, I know what it feels like to face a Goliath-size stack of bills. Fortunately, I also know the joy of victory over the debt giant. Here’s how to wage a successful war against your debts. (See also: When to Use Savings to Pay Off Debt)
Face the Facts
If you’ve ever accidentally cut yourself with a kitchen knife, your first instinct may have been to avoid looking at how bad it was. You just held the cut hand tightly with your good hand, scared to take even a glance.
But if you’re going to stop the bleeding — to your hand or your wallet — you have to take a good, clear look.
Financially, that means adding up your debts. Make a list. Who do you owe? How much do you owe to each creditor? And what’s the interest rate (APR)?
Stop the Bleeding
Before any forward progress can be made, you need to stop moving backwards. That means committing today to going no further into debt. Two bold steps will help.
First, take your credit cards out of your wallet or purse. You don’t have to cut them up (or maybe you do). Just get them out of arm’s reach so that it’s difficult if not impossible to take on more debt.
Next, tell someone how much debt you have. Just thinking about taking this step might rearrange your bones. But it’ll be one of the most helpful steps you can take. There’s something very powerful about getting the news about your debts off of your shoulders alone.
Ask this trusted friend to be your encouragement and accountability partner. Invite them to ask you about your progress from time to time. It’ll go a long way toward helping you build and maintain momentum on your journey out of debt.
Fix Your Payments
One of the simplest steps toward accelerated debt repayment is to keep paying the same amount to your creditors each month. You see, if you go no further into debt, then each month your creditors will ask you for a little less.
That may seem awfully nice of them, but it isn’t kindness. It’s math.
Your minimum payment is based on a percentage of your balance, so if your balance is going down a little each month, so will your minimum due. Paying this declining minimum is one reason why getting out of debt takes so long.
For example, let’s say you have a $5,000 credit card balance, and your minimum due is 2% of the balance. This month’s required payment is $100. But next month it’ll be a little less, and the next month it’ll be even less.
If your card charges 18% interest and you pay the declining minimum due each month, it’ll take you 472 months to get out of debt. That’s over 39 years! Along the way, you’ll fork over nearly $13,400 in interest.
But if you keep paying $100 each month, you’ll be out of debt in “just” 94 months (less than eight years), and you’ll pay about $4,300 in interest.
Wow. That’s a big improvement for just continuing to pay what’s due this month every month.
Ask for a Lower Rate
A huge key to successful negotiating is simply working up the courage to ask for what you want. If you’ve been a good credit card customer, making your payments on time each month, call the company and ask for a lower interest rate.
Just say, “I believe I’ve been a good customer of yours, but I need a better rate. Can you help?” It will work to your advantage if you have a better offer in hand that you can mention. Maybe you received an offer in the mail or saw a better rate advertised online. If they balk, ask to speak to a supervisor.
Sure, they might say no. But if they say yes, lowering your rate from 18% to 14% in the above example will knock your payoff period down to 76 months and your interest payments down to about $2,500. A nice improvement for a 10-minute phone call.
Pay More Than the Fixed Minimum
Of course, if you can find some money to pay more than the fixed minimum each month, you’ll be out of debt even faster. Pay $110 a month instead of $100 in the example above, and you’ll shave another 10 months and about $350 in interest from your debt payoff plan.
By fixing your payments, asking for a lower interest rate, and paying an extra $10 a month, you’ve gone from a payoff period of 472 months and interest payments of nearly $13,400 all the way down to 66 months and less than $2,200 in interest.
Of course, the more you can put toward your debts, the faster you’ll be out of debt. Run some what-if scenarios with different monthly payment amounts using this Accelerated Debt Payoff Calculator.
If you’ve been there and done that with debt, what other steps did you find helpful in getting out of debt?