Financial Tips

A Financial Expert’s 4-Step Plan To Get Out of Credit Card Debt and Build Financial Health

Paco de Leon

Photo: Getty Images/Morsa Images
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Debt has been a part of society for over 5,000 years. Throughout human history, farmers would go into debt so they could afford daily living expenses and to invest in their harvest, which was their only means of survival. Their ability to repay that debt required a bountiful harvest, which was based on a number of factors beyond their control, like weather, rain, and pests.

Much about life has changed in 5,000 years, but individuals being in debt—now especially credit card debt—remains very commonplace and has perhaps even grown to be more pervasive. And that’s a wellness problem because the stress associated with owing money at high interest rates can become a personal health issue, and being in debt can also compromise financial health, which is key for well-being.

But, if you find yourself struggling, having a plan to get out of credit card debt can help guide you through that process and toward financial health in a manageable, step-by-step way. Below, get specifics about how to create that plan and then what to consider to ensure you are successful in seeing it out.

Your 4-step guide for creating a plan to get out of credit card debt

1. Take responsibility for the position you’re in

The last time I got out of credit card debt—because I’ve been in and out of credit card debt multiple times—the first step I took was taking responsibility for the position I was in. Only then could I decide that the debt was an expensive lesson that I needed to learn. Instead feeling ashamed and guilty, I started to seriously examine why I kept falling back into credit card debt and focused on what I could control. Taking responsibility allows you to see a situation from a different perspective and, with that, a different approach for addressing it. In my case, this step helped me mindfully and intentionally get out of debt.

If you are a victim of financial abuse (like having a partner who maintains all economic control over you), predatory lending practices (like when a potential lender uses lies to convince you to borrow money), or systemic inequality (like the racism that Black and Brown people face that is inherently baked into our banking system), taking responsibility won’t absolve your oppressors—being a victim is a very real thing—but it will empower you in a number of ways. You will be able to decide how you feel, how to react, and what your plan to get out of credit card debt looks like—and in some cases, these are the only things under your control.

2. Get to know your debt: How much do you owe and to whom do you owe it?

Looking at your credit card debt will be a lot easier after you feel empowered to take responsibility for the position you’ve found yourself in. If you aren’t sure about how much money you owe and to whom you owe it, you can check your credit report.

By law, you are entitled to one free copy of your credit report per calendar year. Order it online from annualcreditreport.com, the only Federal Trade Commission (FTC) authorized website for free credit reports, or call 1-877-322-8228.

3. Make a list of facts about your credit card debt

Listing out your debts enables you to see the full picture. A spreadsheet is the best tool for this kind of list, but you can also use a pen and paper. Here’s what should be on your list:

  • The name of the lender (to whom you owe the money)
  • The total amount you owe (principal)
  • The interest rate you are paying (APR, stated as a percentage)
  • The minimum monthly payment

Once you have this list, you can figure out the best way to go about dealing with your credit card debt.

4. Come up with a payment plan to get out of credit card debt

Mapping out your plan to get out of credit card debt is useful for a couple of reasons: You can strategize to pay off whichever debt carries the highest interest rate first because doing so will ultimately save you money. Having your plan in place can also keep you motivated because you know the direction where you’re heading. And lastly, a plan will give you your debt-free date—the day you’ll be out of debt.

Once you take a step back and see the big-picture plan with the debt-free date, you can decide if you’re ready to tackle it or if an additional tool may help you. If you feel you’d benefit from additional structure, consider a simple debt-management tool to help you map out your plan. My favorite tool for making a debt plan is Unbury.me, which is free, online, and easy to use.

If you use Unbury.me, you’ll input your debt details so the database can calculate how long it will take you to pay off your debt based on the payment you’re currently making. You can use the sliding lever at the bottom of the payment-plan section to see how changing the amount of your payment can change your debt-free date, and how your debt-free date can change the amount of interest you’ll ultimately pay. (Paying off a debt sooner means a lower long-term interest payment, but it is only possible with a higher monthly payment.)

The tool will also give you a payment plan based on whether or not you want to pay back the highest-interest debt first or lowest-balance debt first. (Paying the lowest balance first is not always the best strategy when it comes to minimizing the amount of interest you’d pay in the long run, but it can offer a beneficial psychological impact. Once you pay a balance, you’ve proven to yourself that you can pay off a debt. It’s like watching a basketball go through the hoop; it’s motivating and encouraging).

4 key considerations for your plan to get out of credit card debt

1. Is your debt manageable or unmanageable?

If your payment plan is affordable and you’ll be out of debt in a reasonable amount of time (a few years), then it’s probably best to execute your plan. If you are barely able to afford your payments or your repayment horizon is unrealistic, with a debt-free date beyond five years from now, you might need to research some other options, like debt consolidation, nonprofit credit counseling or filing for bankruptcy.

2. When should you consider consolidating your credit card debt?

Consolidation is when you take several credit cards and you condense them into one single debt, with one single payment. The decision to consolidate is not a one-size-fits-all decision. If you are serious about getting out of debt as soon as possible and you’re ready to make the changes necessary so you won’t slide back into debt, it might make sense to start weighing the cost of consolidation—which isn’t free—to streamline your plan to get out of credit card debt.

However, debt consolidation does introduce the risk of going into even more into debt because your credit cards will be paid off, which means you’ll be able to start charging again.

3. What are your consolidation options?

If you’re privileged enough to have family that would be willing to consolidate your debt in the form of a personal loan, I urge you to seriously explore that option. Borrowing from family or friends is typically the lowest cost of all loan options because there are no origination fees, and typically a low rate interest, flexibility in making payments, no application, and no credit score required. But beware of how this may impact the dynamic of your relationship.

Another option is to consider a personal loan through a bank, credit union, or other lenders that specialize in personal loans and refinancing credit card debt. All lenders will have different fees, rates, and terms, so you’ll need to do your due diligence to understand what your options are. And the better your credit score, the better your options. For people who have trouble with traditional lenders, there are also peer-to-peer lending options like Lending Tree and Prosper.

4. What about a balance transfer?

A balance transfer is when you move your balance from one credit card company to another. Usually you do this because of a promotional APR, like a 0 percent APR for 12 months. There is usually a 3 percent fee to do this, so make sure you factor that in.

I don’t love recommending balance transfers because doing so means you have more credit cards and, thus, more ways to slip further into debt. But the choice could be a stepping stone for getting out of credit card debt if you use those 12 months to pay down your debt and boost your credit score, putting you in position to qualify for a personal loan.

Paco de Leon is the author and illustrator of her forthcoming debut book, Finance for the People. She founded The Hell Yeah Group, a financial firm focused on inspiring creatives to be engaged with their personal and business finances after her experiences in small business consulting, financial planning and wealth management. She runs a boutique bookkeeping agency called Hell Yeah, Bookkeeping, is the co-host of the Money Diaries Podcast, and is a co-founder of the arts-based non profit organization, Allies in Arts.

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