Having a lot of credit card debt is the worst — or, at the very least, it can feel like it is. Even a small balance can turn into a big problem if you run into financial troubles and can’t pay if off right away. Those annual percentage rates (APRs) can add up quickly and do big damage to your wallet, while the balances themselves can hurt your credit scores. (You can see how your credit card debt is affecting your credit by viewing your free credit report snapshot, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.) Luckily, there are ways to rein those balances in — and there are even some options if your debt goes DEFCON 5. Here are answers to your burning questions about how to pay off credit cards.
What Will it Take to Pay Off My Credit Card?
Discipline, primarily. And a good repayment plan. The second part is (relatively) easy. In fact, you can draft a customized repayment plan using Credit.com’s free credit card payoff calculator. The first part can be tricky, particularly if your propensity for overspending — and not, say, an unforeseen financial emergency — led to those big balances. But fear not: There are some tricks you can employ to keep from transacting. Tuck your credit cards away in a safety deposit box or even in a block of ice. Cut them in two. And, if you really can’t keep yourself from going overboard, close a card (or two). Just be aware that doing so can hurt your credit scores.
What if I Have Multiple Credit Cards to Pay Off?
First, prioritize payments. Make all your minimums, but then put more money toward the card with the lowest balance (because motivation) or the card with the highest APR (because it’ll save you on interest). Full disclosure: The second option is our favorite.
Second, consider ways to consolidate. You have two major options. Get a balance-transfer credit card, which lets you transfer high-interest credit card debt onto a new piece of plastic touting a no-to-low introductory APR for a certain period of time. Or look into a personal loan, or debt consolidation loan. Debt consolidation loans can be used to pay off multiple credit cards, effectively converting them into an installment loan — you’ll pay a set amount with a specified interest rate over a set period of time.
What’s Better: A Balance Transfer Credit Card or a Debt Consolidation Loan?
It depends largely on how much debt you’re carrying, how fervent you are about getting it paid off and how you feel about installment loans. Balance transfer credit cards have the flexibility of a credit card, because they are one. That means even though you should be working as hard as you can to pay your debt off before that intro period expires, you won’t be locked into a set monthly payment and you can make a minimum payment if you run into financial trouble down the line.
A debt consolidation loan, conversely, locks you into a monthly payment but provides you with a set time you’ll be out of the red. The key with either option is to make sure you secure a lower interest rate on the balance you’re paying off or transferring. You’ve got a better shot of that with a balance transfer credit card, because the best ones offer a 0% introductory rate. In either case, it’ll come down to your credit.
A few other things to keep in mind: Balance transfer credit cards typically charge a fee, usually 2% to 3% of the debt you’re looking to transfer. And you won’t know your credit limit until after you apply, though you can call the issuer to get an idea of where it might fall and whether it will cover the entire balance you’re looking to transfer.
My Credit Card Debt Is Truly Out of Control. What Can I Do?
You can try negotiating with your creditors to work out a special payment plan, secure a lower interest rate or even pay back less than what you owe. (Be forewarned: That last one will muck up your credit scores.) If you can’t make any arrangements yourself, consider getting some help. Many credit counselors offer free consultations and, for a fee, they’ll help you set up what’s known as a debt management plan (DMP). Under a DMP, you make a single monthly payment to your credit counselor, who then pays off your creditors on your behalf. You can learn more about credit counseling here.
Beyond that, you can consult a bankruptcy attorney to determine if that’s an option for you. Keep in mind, though, you’ll want to consider filing for bankruptcy very carefully. It’ll absolutely tank your credit — and can stay on your credit reports for up to 10 years.