You can dig yourself out of debt.
A man in his late 20s recently revealed on Reddit that he racked up $16,000 in credit-card debt in four years, after one undisclosed medical emergency, getting married and having a baby, and what he calls “slow spending” piled up on the card. He signed up for the card when he was just 23.
At his lowest point, he was virtually cleaned out. “I actually saved my very last dollar and have it taped to my steering column in my truck,” he wrote. “And when I say last dollar I truly mean it. We had negative balance in the bank and overtaxed all our cards.”
But he and his wife were able to wipe out their credit-card debt — and save up another $16,000 — in under two years. He shared 11 pieces of financial wisdom that he wished people had told him before he got so deep in debt, such. No. 1: “Pay it off later” is a no-no. Later never comes.
His post has drawn over 2,000 comments. “As someone with $24,000 in credit-card debt, this gives me hope,” one said. Another said he and his wife put off having a child until they paid off their $20,000: “We worked extra jobs, pinched where we could, and as of last month we are debt free.”
Their struggle is shared by the more than half (55%) of American households carrying credit card-debt, with one in 10 people carrying a balance higher than $5,000, according to a recent CNBC report. U.S. credit card debt hit a record $870 billion by the end of 2018, according to the Federal Reserve, with almost 480 million credit cards in circulation.
The game plan to get out of debt is neither quick nor easy. “It starts with a monitoring your finances, making a budget and sticking to it,” Ben Soccodato, a New York-based certified financial planner at Barnum Financial Group, told MarketWatch.
“If you don’t have that structure and discipline in place, and without an emergency reserve fund, you are going to get caught up in a situation like this family did,” he added. In fact, one in five Americans in a U.S. News and World Report survey said they didn’t even know if they had credit-card debt.
Here are 7 lessons:
- You will not ‘pay it off later’
“Adopt the mindset that you cannot spend more than you can afford to pay off monthly,” said Anna Colton, a strategic planning executive for Bank of America BAC, -0.34% Consumer Banking & Investments. “If you cannot pay for the item in cash, or pay off your credit card balance at the end of the month, you should not be charging the item.”
- Side hustles can help. A lot
The Reddit poster taught himself to make skateboards to sell, and his wife learned birth photography, and they both pooled the extra income toward their debt. Indeed, one-third of Americans in a recent Bankrate survey said they need a side gig to pay their expenses, making an average of $1,122 in extra income.
- You will spend what you have
“Start by writing down and calculating every single one of your monthly expenses — including rent, car payments, living expenses and even gym memberships,” said Colton. “This will help provide a thorough overview of where your money is going, and how much left you’ll have in the bank to pay off your monthly credit-card bill.”
- Beware of eBay EBAY, -0.45% and Amazon AMZN, +0.24%
Research has shown that people spend more using a credit card than when using cash. And when you save your credit card information online so that you don’t even need to take the card out of your pocket, consumers feel even more removed from the transaction. So don’t; forcing yourself to input all of your payment information on the checkout page will give you time to think twice about the purchase.
- You still need to save
“Without an emergency fund, you’re going to go right back to the crutch of using credit when your car breaks down, or something is on the fritz around the house, or there’s an emergency,” said Ted Rossman, industry analyst at CreditCards.com. Saving even $20 a week to work toward a $500 or $1,000 emergency fund can provide a buffer for the next unexpected expense, so you won’t be adding to the debt that you’re trying to pay down.
- Pay off the highest interest rate first
The Reddit guy paid off the lowest debts first while meeting the minimum payment on the larger debts until all of the cards were paid off. Soccodato recommends the avalanche method, however: Paying off the card with the highest interest rate first, and then working your way down from there.
Both work, as long as you stick to the plan. “So much of getting out of debt is psychological, so if you’re someone who is motivated by quick wins, then paying off the smallest debts first will show you that you are making progress,” said Rossman. “But mathematically, you’ll save the most money by paying off the highest interest rate first.”
- Take advantage of balance transfers
“The ability to take an existing credit-card debt, and transfer it over to a new card with 0% interest for as long as 21 months, can be really huge savings for some people,” said Rossman. Amex EveryDay AXP, +0.92% the BankAmericard and the Chase Slate all offer this service.
Depending on how much you owe, transferring your credit-card balance “can save you hundreds or even thousands” of dollars in interest, Rossman said. However, be wary of transfer fees, and remember that you will likely revert to a hefty interest rate once the 0% interest rate period is over.