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First, break the habit of paying only the minimum required each month. Paying the minimum — usually 2% to 3% of the outstanding balance — only prolongs the agony. Besides, it’s precisely what the banks want you to do. The longer you take to repay the charges, the more interest they make, and the less cash you have in your pocket. Don’t let the banks play you.
Instead, make a sacrifice and pay as much as you can each month. If your minimum payment is $100, double that to $200 or more. Examine your normal expenses to find the money. Skip eating out at lunch, and bring it from home instead. Eliminate desserts. Give up happy hour. We all have “luxuries,” and you know what yours are.
Make a few sacrifices, and you will find the extra dollars needed to increase your debt repayments dramatically. Those increased payments will save you hundreds, if not thousands, in interest payments. Plus, you will get out of the hole you’ve dug for yourself much more quickly. Is it fun? No. But it sure beats living a hand-to-mouth existence, fearing bills each month.
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Take a long, hard look at all your credit cards. Pay particular attention to the one with the lowest interest rate. Have you reached the maximum limit on that card? If not, consider transferring a higher-interest bill to that one. Many credit cards permit this, and it’s positively Foolish to trade an 18% debt for one at 12%.
If your entire balance is too large to fit on one low-interest card, pay at least the minimum amounts due on all of your cards except one, the smallest balance. Funnel the majority of your debt repayments into that one credit card, and pay it off as quickly as possible. When the balance on that card reaches zero, move on to the next with the same aggressive repayment plan, using the extra money from the payment you just eliminated.
Repeat this for the next lowest balance. This method of repayment is aptly called “snowballing.” As your debts decrease, the amount of money you have to attack them increases. Your payments snowball until all of your debt is paid off.
Another way to transfer higher-interest debt to a lower-interest card is to take advantage of the promotional offers many banks use to entice you to their line of credit. You’ve seen the come-ons. “Transfer all your credit card balances to us, and pay just 5.9% until next January.” It could be worth it. Moving to 5.9% from 18% interest could mean substantial dollars to you. And the money saved in interest could then be applied toward the principal each month, thus reducing your outstanding debt balance even further.
Take care, though, before you act. Examine the offer closely. Look for the hooks. Will the interest rate after the introductory period be higher than you’re paying now? If so, you may have to switch again at that time. That, in turn, could give rise to another surprise. Banks have caught onto the charge card hoppers who switch from card to card to take advantage of the low introductory rates. Many of these offers now stipulate that if you transfer balances from the new card within a 12-month period, the normal interest rate will be applied to all outstanding balances retroactively. That proviso could be a bitter pill to swallow for someone short on cash, and it certainly doesn’t help the debt repayment schedule. Read the fine print.
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Using the debt avalanche, you’d make the minimum monthly payments on your lowest interest debt, and put all extra money toward the debt with the highest interest.
Once that is paid in full, you’d put the extra money toward the next highest interest rate, which would be your student loans. When that is paid off, you’d then allocate all additional funds toward the car loan.
Under the debt avalanche method, the balance is irrelevant and your focus is solely on attacking high interest debt. Focusing on high interest debt first and putting extra money toward those loans helps minimize interest over time, which helps you pay off more of the principal balance.
The debt avalanche method is the most cost-effective debt repayment strategy, resulting in less interest and faster repayment. The previous method, the debt snowball, is often good for motivation — it feels good to wipe out one of your debts entirely — but may result in paying more interest over time.
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We touched on balance transfers previously. Balances transferred to a balance-transfer credit card with a 0% intro APR won’t incur interest charges during the promo period. This can be a powerful strategy to pay off debt faster as your entire monthly payments are applied to principal inside the promo period, instead of paying interest charges on top.
A $5,000 balance paid in full over 18 months will cost you $703 in interest charges at an 18% APR. Those interest charges could be avoided with a 0% introductory APR offer, assuming the balance is paid in full before the promotional rate expires.
The longer the promo period the better your credit must be to get approved for the credit card. People with average credit and better can typically qualify for a balance-transfer credit card. There are a few straightforward steps to utilize this strategy.
- Apply for a balance-transfer credit card. You can review our picks of the best balance-transfer credit cards to find a handful of our favorites.
- Request a balance transfer from your old card incurring interest charges to the new card with a 0% APR promo. Most card issuers include an option to transfer balances during the application process. It’s worth noting that many cards charge a small fee for balance transfers, which generally works out to 3% of the transfer amount..
- After the transfer has been made, you just need to make monthly payments as normal. We’d suggest doing whatever possible to pay entire balance during the promo period to avoid interest charges completely.
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One last possibility if the situation is dire. Savings are gone; relatives have been tapped out; you don’t have a home or 401(k) to borrow against. You feel like you’re against that proverbial wall. The money just isn’t there. Is bankruptcy the only way out? No way. Try pulling an ace out of your sleeve prior to taking that step. What ace? The threat of bankruptcy, of course.
Let your creditors know your situation. Tell them that if you are unable to renegotiate terms, you’ll have no other recourse but to declare bankruptcy. Ask for a new and lower repayment schedule; request a lower interest rate; and appeal to their desire to receive payment. Faced with the prospect that you may resort to such a drastic step, creditors will do what they can to protect themselves against a total loss.
Indeed, many will negotiate away the farm before they’ll write off your debt. As lawyer’s love to say, everything is negotiable. Therefore, what do you have to lose, except time? It’s worth a try. And if you don’t wish to do this yourself, organizations exist that can do it for you.