Suffering from a bit of a spending hangover? Get started paying off debt before it spirals out of control. You definitely don’t want to find yourself paying interest on last year’s holiday debt while you’re shopping for presents this year.
Howard Dvorkin, founder of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services and author of “Credit Hell: How to Dig Out of Debt,” sees a lot more people come through his door during January and February.
“During the holidays, people aren’t used to spending that kind of money. They put more on their cards than they should, and all of a sudden, they don’t realize what they’re spending and what they’re buying,” he said. “And then the bills start coming in—and they’re shocked.”
The first step to paying off debt is simply to stop spending. Don’t compound your credit card problems by adding more, especially if this is largely frivolous debt.
Next, survey the damage caused by the holiday spending fervor. But don’t just focus on what you spent during the last two months or so. Assess your entire debt, including store credit cards, older cards with a balance, and any cards you have used to charge gifts. If you’re not sure what your debt picture looks like, pull your credit report to make sure you’re not forgetting about any accounts. While you’re at it, take a peek at your credit score, and use the prospect of raising your score as motivation to keep paying off debt.
The third step is to set up a budget. You really can’t knock out your debt with much efficiency or haste without a budget.
“A budget requires you to determine what you have available after all your expenses to liquidate your accounts,” Dvorkin said. “What I advise people to do, if they have any money left over in the budget, is to just throw that at your debt.”
Dvorkin recommends paying at least three times the minimum on the highest interest-bearing card while continuing to pay the minimum on your other debts. Once that account is paid off, take the money you were spending on that account and apply it to the card with the next-highest interest until all your debt is paid down.
“If you’re carrying balances on your credit cards, no matter what, you should use every bit of your spare cash to put towards your outstanding debt, even forgoing your savings for a while,” Dvorkin said. “Annual bonuses, holiday bonuses, tax refunds should all go toward debt.”
Take a stab at negotiating a lower interest rate with your credit card companies as well. If you know you can get a better interest rate elsewhere and you’ve been a good customer, all you have to do is ask. Worst-case scenario: You get rejected and continue paying off your debt at the usual rate.
If you can, consider doing a balance transfer to consolidate your credit card debt. This move can save you money through a lower interest rate and help keep your eye on the ball because you will only have one debt to pay off instead of multiple creditors. But be very careful with how you execute this move so that you don’t get tripped up paying more than you expected. Make sure that your interest rate won’t skyrocket or that you won’t pay high balance-transfer fees.
And don’t forget about this year. Unless you can quickly pay down all this debt and start saving up for the next holiday season of spending, you will eventually want a plan to deal with future spending. Get creative about your gifts and holiday-related expenditures. Offer to babysit, wash a car, or help out at home instead of spending money you really don’t have.
Michelle Stoffel Huffman is a researcher and staff writer for Think Glink Inc. Prior to joining Think Glink, Michelle worked for the Chicago Tribune as a daily news reporter and community manager, covering local government, business, tax issues and crime. She now specializes in real estate industry news, consumer financial reporting and home design and decor. She is a graduate of DePaul University in Chicago.
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