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Credit card debt is a big problem in America today. One recent study found that 1 in 4 people have more credit card debt than savings. Households with credit card debt on average have about $15,000 in debt, and that makes it incredibly hard to make ends meet — let alone pursue dreams for the future.

Do you find yourself in that boat?

If so, don’t despair. The best time to start paying off credit card debt is right now. These tips will help you take control of your debt and start your journey to becoming debt free. These are lessons that I’ve learned through my own personal experience with credit card debt (and from working at ReadyForZero which developed online tools to help people pay off debt). Just remember, paying off debt is not a goal you can achieve immediately — it will take significant time and perseverance.

1. Understand the Risks of Credit Cards

Why are credit cards risky? For a few reasons: first, they make it easier to spend money that you don’t have. Research has shown that we feel more pain when we spend actual dollars than when we swipe a credit card to pay for a purchase. In other words, the credit card actually removes the discomfort of seeing hard-earned money leave your wallet. That’s why it can be so easy to get caught up in credit card debt.

Another potential problem with credit cards is minimum payments — which can keep you in debt for a very long time. Many people simply make those minimum payments while their balance barely shrinks (or perhaps continues to grow!) because of further spending and interest charges.

In fact, the third reason credit cards are risky is the interest. Some cards have  high interest rates — up to 25 or 30 percent! Even if you have a lower interest rate, like 10%, that still means you’re losing money every month when you carry a balance. The interest can accumulate very quickly, which can also keep you in debt for a long time if you’re not careful.

For example, consider the story of a woman named Jennifer who paid off $37,000 in debt, and she said her problem began with a few innocent purchases on a credit card (including a desktop computer). “I pretty much just kept some kind of revolving credit card debt the whole time,” she said. Before she knew it, the debt had spiraled. But thankfully she was able to conquer it after learning some important strategies, including the ones below.

2. Make a Plan of Attack to Pay Off Your Credit Cards

Okay, so now you understand the risks of credit cards. But the question remains: how to pay off credit card debt? To do that, you’ll need a plan. Start by putting all your credit card statements on the table and writing a list of the current balances and interest rates. Make sure you put them in order — from the one with the highest interest rate to the one with the lowest interest rate.

Then craft your battle plan. You want to pay off the highest interest credit card first because that will save you the most money in the long run. So figure out how much you can pay in total (per month) and then load up all that extra money (after minimum payments) and aim it like a bazooka at the high-interest credit card.

Your plan will need to focus on the first card, and once that first debt is destroyed you’ll move onto to the second-highest card, and so on. This way, you’ll save yourself as many interest payments as possible.

Jennifer experienced a big change once she created her get-out-of-debt plan. As soon as she had her monthly goal in mind, she became very motivated and started working hard to make those higher payments every month.

3. Treat Credit Card Debt Like an Emergency

A third important lesson is that you should view credit card debt as an emergency. What this means is doing everything possible to get out of debt faster. A big factor in speeding up the process is to be an expert at budgeting. Make a budget and stick to it every month, while learning to save money in new ways. For example, if you spend a lot on food, try shopping at a different grocery store or limiting yourself to one restaurant meal per month. Or if you spend a lot on clothes, vow to stay away from clothing stores until you’re debt free. Whatever it takes, try to cut your monthly expenses.

These small choices will make a big difference in your debt repayment!

Another idea is to earn some extra income on the side, in addition to your main job. There are freelancing websites online now that allow anyone to apply for freelance jobs and you can spend a few hours a week doing things like typing, organizing, designing, writing, etc. and make some extra money to pay off debt faster.

Jennifer said that a key to paying off $37,000 of debt was making some major money-saving decisions. After thinking about ways to cut her expenses, she realized “If I got rid of this car it would help me pay off my debt a lot faster,” she said. So that’s what she did. She sold her car, and it sped up her progress.

4. Cultivate Your Motivation for Paying Off Credit Card Debt

How do you stay motivated? How do you keep plugging along week after week, month after month, even when it’s hard? We’ve found that the key is to keep your long-term goals in mind and to share your progress with friends and loved ones. You can write down your goal and even add a picture of something that motivates you — whether it’s a new house, a vacation, your retirement — and put it where you will see it every day. This will help you stick with it until you reach your goal!

And if you tell friends and family about your goal, they will almost always help you stay focused too!

Jennifer used both of these tactics. She got support from those around her, and she kept her goal at the forefront. “What I really wanted was freedom — to travel and to be able to grow my business in the way I want to,” she told us. We’re so glad she reached her goal, and we hope that these tips will help you reach your goals, too!

Image: iStockphoto

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