Paying off credit card debt: Four top tips from personal finance experts

It’s one of the most common financial problems and one that can overwhelm you unless you pay close attention to your spending.

© Getty Images/iStockphoto iStock-969119388.jpg

Debt on credit cards can feel like it takes on a life of its own when you’re not looking, and adding to it is all too easy – a dinner out here, a little retail therapy there, chasing reward points for an airline, splashing out on that vacation… it all builds up. Worse still, you find you’re doing it on multiple cards.

Time to take a deep breath and come up with a plan for paying off the debt you’ve accumulated. The Independent spoke with three personal finance experts about what they see as the best strategies for tackling credit card debt.

Calculate your debt total and set a debt-free date

In order to pay off your debt, you first need to know exactly how much of it you have. Create a simple spreadsheet, or use a personal finance site such as Mint, and detail all your credit cards, their respective balances, and interest rates.

This will help provide clarity to the scale of the project ahead of you and allow you to focus and track your progress. You may be surprised at how quickly you can get to work paying down what you owe and what a difference a few small changes in your lifestyle can make if you use even small amounts to pay down debt.

Next up, set yourself a deadline. When do you want to be debt-free? Danetha Doe, the creator of Money & Mimosas, a financial wellness platform for the self-employed, says: “Once you have a date in mind, reverse engineer the process to figure out how much you need to pay off each month and which strategy is the best approach for you.”

Choose a debt payoff strategy

There are few ways to go about paying off your debt, so choose one that you think will work for you, but know that if you struggle, you have other options.

The first approach is known as the “avalanche method” where you pay off the card with the highest interest rate first while paying the minimum amount on the other credit cards. “Once you pay off the first credit card, then you avalanche those monthly payments to the next credit card and so on,” explains Ms Doe.

Loreen Gilbert, CEO and founder of WealthWise Financial Services, notes: “People have different opinions on how to tackle credit card debt. Some say to pay off the smallest one first as it is an accomplishment. However, I believe tackling the one with the highest interest makes more financial sense.”

Paying off the card with the lowest balance is known as the “snowball method”. In the same way, as with the avalanche method, you pay the minimum amount on any other cards you have, and then once the first card is paid off you snowball those monthly payments onto the next card.

Ramit Sethi, the author of I Will Teach You To Be Rich, is a fan of this method and notes that if you feel like you’re not getting ahead of your debts, it’s a quick way to get a sense of achievement in what for many is an uphill struggle.

He advises paying an extra $50 a month, either by saving money elsewhere or making some extra cash from a side-hustle to cover that amount. Most importantly, while paying the minimum on your other cards, pretend that they don’t exist to avoid building up more debt.

Says Mr Sethi: “Paying off the credit card with the highest APR might be the best method mathematically, but you know what feels amazing? Paying off a card. You’ll get your confidence back, build up momentum, and be ready to take on a bigger challenge. Before you know it, you’ll have it paid off and you can move to the next card.”

A third method is to do debt consolidation. This is where you call your credit card companies and ask if they will consolidate your credit card balances onto one card.

Ms Doe notes that typically if they do this, they will offer a lower interest rate on the card. “This can be great for some people because it results in having only one payment per month versus several payments which can be overwhelming.”

As a last resort, she suggests filing for bankruptcy. “Sometimes this is the only option for folks to get out from under crushing debt. Work with a legal expert to determine if this is the right path for you.”

Consider a balance transfer

Depending on your credit score, some credit cards will offer you the option to transfer your credit card balance to a 0% interest credit card. Keep in mind that this 0% interest will only last for a short period, and once the time period is over then the interest rate will skyrocket.

Ms Gilbert notes: “Many people who are accustomed to living beyond their means, use credit cards to finance their lifestyle and then they look to move the credit card balances to 0% interest cards. The problem is that rates won’t be low forever, so getting the spending side under control is key to getting rid of credit card debt once and for all time.”

“If you do transfer balances to a 0% offer,” she advises, “keep the same payment from your higher interest cards that you were required to pay in order to bring down the debt faster.”

Be tough on your spending

Use the time you spend paying down your debt to work on establishing new financial norms for yourself that will hopefully leave you in a healthier

“Until credit cards are paid off, stop using credit cards completely,” says Ms Gilbert. “Studies have shown that people spend approximately 20 per cent more when using credit cards than when paying with cash. So use cash and break the habit of spending more.”

“By the time the credit cards are paid off, you have developed a new habit and may not feel the need to use a credit card,” she adds.

“If you’re still having trouble sticking to your debt pay off plan, you may need to use a system like the conscious spending plan to manage your spending,” suggests Mr Sethi, referencing the technique of planning out exactly how you are going to spend your money ahead of time and sticking to it.

“You can also look for big wins that can unlock more income, like negotiating your salary or rent. By earning more (or spending less) you’ll be able to pay down your debt faster,” he adds.

Ms Gilbert suggests a similarly practical approach: “Eat out two times less per week and use that money to pay down debt. It may seem like an insignificant amount of money, but that small amount of money can make a big difference. For example, if each meal costs you $25, you could pay down debt by $200 per month.”

Breaking a cycle of spending and debt accumulation may require a more introspective examination, says Ms Doe. “If you have found yourself in a cycle of carrying credit card debt for an extended period of time, or fluctuating between no credit card debt and high levels of debt, it is wise to examine your mindset.”

She suggests examining your relationship with and beliefs about money in order to establish which financial behaviours you need to change.

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