Being in debt sucks. Believe me, I know.
There was a point when I found myself in way more credit card debt than I’d like to admit as a personal finance expert. My husband’s chronic illness flared up, and suddenly we were facing mounting medical bills at the same time he had to stop working. I did everything I could to make ends meet, but all too often, I had to fall back on my cards.
Just remembering this period makes my chest tighten. The higher the balances got, the less in control I felt. The prospect of paying everything down was increasingly overwhelming and intimidating. Part of me wanted to defect to Canada, assume a new identity, and hope my debt never found me.
I won’t pretend it was easy, but with determination, advice from experts, and a healthy dose of belt-tightening, I finally became debt-free. You can too.
How to Get Out of Credit Card Debt Fast
If you’re struggling with high credit card balances, getting out of debt should be your No. 1 priority. These steps will help you get there.
Step 1: Stop Using Your Credit Cards
When you’re in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.
Don’t keep your cards in your wallet. Lock them in a drawer so they’re harder to access. If you’re worried you’ll still be tempted to use them, cut them up or freeze them (by freezing your credit or literally putting your card on ice).
Consider setting aside a certain amount of cash for all your monthly purchases. When your cash runs out, that’s it. You can’t buy anything else till next month.
If you have no choice but to charge something — say, your car breaks down and you don’t have the money for the repairs — charge it to your lowest-interest card and continue to do everything you can to pay off the balance.
It will be tough sometimes, but finding creative ways to buy things for less (or do without altogether) will save Future You money. Adding to your debt while trying to pay it off is like bailing out a sinking canoe without plugging the hole that made it take on water in the first place.
Step 2: Review Your Financial Situation
Once you’ve stopped the bleeding, the next step is identifying what got you into trouble.
Did you have a temporary setback like a job loss or emergency expense? You’ll need to trim your spending or earn extra money to get yourself back on track (or both).
Are you spending more than you bring in each month? You’ll need to figure out how to stop.
Take a long, hard look at your finances so you know exactly what you’re working with. It’s the only way you’ll be able to set things right and prevent yourself from going into debt again.
Step 3: Create a Budget
A budget is a fundamental part of money management. You’ll never be in control of your finances if you don’t know how much is coming in and going out each month.
If you don’t have one, it’s time to create a budget. Here’s how:
- List all your monthly income from all sources.
- List all your monthly expenses (bills, discretionary spending, debt payments, etc.).
- Subtract expenses from income to see how much money you have left over.
- Adjust your monthly expenses to ensure you stay in the black each month (or, ideally, have money to spare).
- Track and review these numbers each month and tweak them as needed using Steps 4 and 5 below.
You can create a budget using a spreadsheet, with software or apps like Mint or You Need a Budget, or using the envelope system, where you put all your cash for the month in category-specific envelopes. Choose whichever format is easiest for you.
If you already have a budget, the next two steps will help you figure out how to tweak it so it serves you better.
Step 4: Trim Your Expenses
The more money you can throw at your debt, the quicker you’ll eliminate it. One way to free up extra money is by reducing how much you spend each month.
From little tweaks to big changes, chances are there’s more room for adjustment in your budget than you might think. You can free up more money by, among other things:
- Lowering your utility bills by doing things like sealing up drafty windows and turning off lights in rooms you’re not using
- Canceling subscriptions you don’t need or rarely use, like a gym membership or cable TV
- No longer eating out
- Meal planning to make the most of your groceries
- Shopping sales and secondhand stores
- Shopping around for a cheaper insurance plan
- Selling one of your cars
- Downsizing to a smaller home
Look at each expense you have and ask yourself what you can do to trim it (or if you even need it in the first place). You may be surprised by how much you can cut.
Step 5: Find Extra Cash
You’ll be able to pay down your debt even faster by combining cost-cutting with bringing in extra money. Ways to do this include:
- Working a side hustle, like delivering food or pet sitting
- Starting a side business, like selling crafts on Etsy
- Developing passive income streams with affiliate marketing or selling stock photos
- Banking any windfalls you receive, like a bonus or tax return
Use the money from these income streams to put more toward your credit card balances. Every extra dollar gets you closer to your goal.
Step 6: Lower Your Interest Rates
When you don’t pay your credit card balance in full each month, you incur interest charges. That interest compounds monthly, so you pay interest on your interest. Your balance keeps growing even if you don’t charge anything else to your card.
You can pay your debts down faster by lowering the interest rates on your cards with the following methods.
Take Advantage of a Balance Transfer Promotion
You pay no interest on the balance for a set period, typically between 12 and 21 months. After that, the interest rate resets the card’s standard APR. If you pay off the balance before the introductory period ends, you can avoid interest charges altogether.
To use a balance transfer successfully, check for balance transfer fees — one-time fees assessed on the amount you’re transferring to the credit card. These fees can cost you, but your interest savings might make the transfer worth it.
Negotiate With Your Credit Card Company
Credit card terms aren’t set in stone. You can negotiate your interest rate by calling your credit card issuer’s customer service line.
Emphasize the positives, like how long you’ve been a customer and if you’ve made your payments on time until recently. Explain your extenuating circumstances. Be persistent, and be prepared to escalate the issue to a manager.
If your card company isn’t willing to permanently reduce your rate, it might be open to a temporary reduction, which can give you some breathing room.
Whatever the issuer agrees to, get a copy of the agreement in writing.
Step 7: Choose a Payment Strategy
Being strategic with your credit card payments saves you interest and helps you pay down your balances faster.
The three main strategies for paying down debt are the debt avalanche method, the debt snowball method, and the debt snowflake method. We compare these three strategies here. Take a look at our analysis to decide which is best for you.
8. Set Up a Payment Plan
Your credit card company wants your money. They’d prefer to collect everything you owe them. But they’d rather work with you to get some of your money than have you declare bankruptcy, in which case they’d get nothing.
A payment plan is an arrangement where your credit card company agrees to change the terms of your account so it’s easier for you to pay them back. There are two ways you can negotiate a payment plan.
With Your Credit Card Company Directly
Call your credit card issuer and tell them why you’re struggling to make payments. Ask them what kind of installment plan they can offer to make payments more manageable. They may agree to a lower monthly payment, a fixed interest rate, or 0% interest over a specific period.
The issuer might charge you a monthly fee for the plan, but it could still save you money and help you pay your debt off faster in the long run.
Through a Credit Counselor
If you don’t feel comfortable negotiating with your card issuers yourself, a credit counselor can contact your creditors for you to arrange a debt management plan. The counseling agency collects a monthly payment for you and then pays your creditors.
You’ll incur setup fees and monthly charges for this service. And your credit score might drop temporarily since many counseling agencies ask you to stop making payments on your cards while they work out your debt management plan.
Still, credit counseling could be your best choice if you don’t want to deal with your creditors yourself or you’d rather have one monthly payment to keep track of.
9. Consider Debt Settlement
If all else fails, there’s debt settlement. In a debt settlement, your creditors agree to accept less money than you owe. Unlike a payment plan, where you pay a certain amount per month, debt settlement usually means a lump-sum payment — you pay an agreed-upon amount all at once, and the issuer cancels any remaining debt.
Debt settlement can be a lengthy process that damages your credit score, so consider the other options above before you choose it. If it’s a choice between debt settlement and bankruptcy, debt settlement is the better option.
I contacted a credit counseling agency to help me pay off my debt. They negotiated with my creditors for a monthly payment that was doable for me. It still took lots of budget cutting and extra work hours on my part, but finally paying off my mountain of debt was an amazing feeling I won’t soon forget.
What’s not an amazing feeling is finding yourself right back in the hole shortly after achieving debt freedom. Do everything you can to avoid that.
Build an emergency fund so unexpected expenses don’t derail you. Continue to review and tweak your budget. Keep working that side hustle. Remember how stressed you felt when you were weighed down with debt, and vow to Future You to never get there again.