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Digging Out of Debt

by SmartMoney.com Staff
October 24, 2007

Updated on October 5, 2007.

THE SECRET to paying off credit-card debt is really very simple: All you need to do is earn more than you spend, and apply the savings toward paying down your debt.

So then what makes tackling credit-card debt so hard? Sadly, many seem to be losing the battle of the credit-card balance. Consider that 61% of all credit-card holders carry a balance, according to CardWeb, an industry tracker. And among families that have at least one credit card, the average balance is a staggering $9,659. Ten years ago it was $5,875.

"People are out of control," says Howard Strong, a consumer attorney and author of "What Every Credit-Card User Needs to Know." "They're out buying love at the malls." And they aren't succeeding. According to a survey of 1,500 consumers by Consolidated Credit Counseling Services, a whopping 71% said debt is making their home life unhappy.

Part of the problem is that the credit-card companies have made it easier than ever to carry a balance. "People are addicted to minimum-payment crack," says Steve Rhode, co-founder of Myvesta, a debt-counseling service. (Click here for other costly credit-card tricks.) But many fiscally responsible people can also find themselves woefully in debt after some sort of personal crisis, such as a divorce, illness or the loss of a job.

So what are the warning signs that your credit-card debt has changed from nuisance to crisis? For starters, if you think that you might be having a problem, then you probably are, says Rhode. Generally speaking, your debt-to-income ratio (not including mortgage payments) shouldn't exceed 20%, which means that you shouldn't be devoting more than 20% of your net monthly income to paying off credit cards and other nonmortgage debt. Other signs of trouble, according to Gerri Detweiler, author of "Slash Your Debt," include:

Only being able to make the minimum payments on your debt.
Maxing out several or all of your credit cards.
Frequently charging items with the intention of paying them off at the end of the month, but then finding that you're financially unable to do so.
Using credit cards for everyday purchases like groceries.
Using credit cards to pay for things you know you can't afford.
Worrying that people close to you will find out just how deep in debt you really are.

If the creditors are calling or if your credit report is already suffering due to late payments or bills that you've been unable to pay at all, then you probably should consider visiting a credit counselor. But if your credit rating remains intact and you're feeling disciplined, you should be able to dig yourself out of this hole on your own. Here's some advice:

Get a Grip
The first thing you need to do is figure out just where you stand financially. This means knowing how much you owe (and how much you're paying for it) as well as how much you've saved. In other words, you need to know both your net worth and your cash flow. Ultimately, you're going to have to come up with the ever-dreaded budget, so you can know just how much you have to spend and how much you can use to pay down your debt each month. Based on your answers, our calculator will give you a reasonable estimate of when you can kiss that debt goodbye and how much it will cost you before you do.

How Long Will it Take to Pay Off My Credit-Card Debt?

Debt Maneuvers
Many consumers have the option of swapping their credit-card debt for some other lower-interest debt, either through a home-equity loan or by borrowing from their 401(k). If the reason you've run into debt problems in the first place is a unique circumstance a job layoff, for example then a home-equity loan may be a smart thing to do. (We generally think you shouldn't tap your 401(k) except as a last resort.) But if you're a chronic charger, you're better off avoiding these approaches. After all, you'll be substantially worse off if you simply rack up that credit-card debt once again, while also putting your home or your retirement at risk.

Assuming you're going to stick with your credit-card debt, then the first thing to do is to call up your lenders and demand a lower rate, says Detweiler. This can be remarkably effective: With one five-minute phone conversation, 56% of consumers who called their credit-card company were able to lower their annual percentage rates, according to a study by the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group. Those who were successful were able to reduce their rate by as much as one-third, from an average of 16% to 10.47%. The success rate was affected by how long the customer had held a particular card, the amount of debt they were carrying in relation to their credit limit and whether or not they had a history of late payments.

Other strategies? Experts recommend that you focus on the card that has the highest interest rate first. That said, if you're the type who seeks immediate gratification, then you might want to start by tackling the card with the smallest balance for the satisfaction of seeing one of your debts paid off.

Rolling your debt over to a lower-rate card can also save you some money, although make sure that you use the extra savings to pay down your debt more rapidly. And don't think you can roll over your balances indefinitely once the credit-card companies know your game, you'll find that the offers for balance transfers have dried up.

To avoid temptation, you should also probably remove your credit cards from your wallet. (Some credit counselors even go so far as to recommend that you freeze them in a block of ice in your icebox. That should slow down the impulse buying.) Instead, carry a debit card or a charge card like a standard American Express, which forces you to pay off the balance in full each month.

Return to On the Agenda: Credit-Card Debt
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Should You Consolidate Your Loans?

by SmartMoney.com Staff
June 9, 2006

Click here to see the worksheet below

CREDIT CARDS, student loans, car payments, mortgages. If you go through a box of checks like a flu victim goes through Kleenex, you may be a candidate for loan consolidation. You've got lots of options to choose from, whether it's taking a personal loan from your bank or credit union or rolling your credit-card balances to a low-rate card. The key is to reduce your interest rates not just your monthly out-of-pocket costs.

These days, debt can be cheap and some credit-card companies are charging single-digit interest rates for their best customers. So if you're paying upwards of 15% on several credit cards, then consolidating your debt could save you a lot of cash. Our consolidation calculator will help you figure out just how much. Enter the current balance on your loans along with the interest charged, and you'll see how consolidation will affect your overall interest rate. (Of course, if you take this opportunity to reduce your principal payments, your new low-interest rate loan could end up costing you more than the old one.)

Debt Management Worksheet

What Type of Loan Should You Get?
No matter what, stay away from debt-consolidation scams you know, those e-mails you get promising to reduce your monthly payments even if you have bad credit. "With finance companies, you'll pay as much as 26% in interest and probably hurt your credit rating," says Gerri Detweiler, author of "The Ultimate Credit Handbook." Furthermore, they will charge application and handling fees you wouldn't have to pay otherwise.

If your debt is only tied up in credit cards, then a much better option is to simply roll over your credit-card debt to a card with a lower interest rate. For the best deals, check out our credit-card rates page.

But if you're looking to consolidate different types of loans, or if you're looking for cheaper rates than those offered by credit-card companies, check to see if you qualify for a personal loan from your bank or credit union. These loans can be secured (backed by something you own) or unsecured, but with unsecured loans, "i's going to be difficult to qualify," warns Detweiler.

If you're a homeowner, consider a home equity loan. The interest on these loans is tax deductible, as long as your loan doesn't exceed the value of your house. Bankrate.com provides national averages as well as the best rates by state. Just bear in mind, if you default on your loan, you risk losing what is most likely your most valuable asset.

And finally, you could also consider borrowing against your 401(k) or other investments via a margin account. Borrowing on margin to pay off your debt can be cheap (most brokerages charge you slightly more than the broker call rate, which these days is 3.75%), but very risky, and we wouldn't recommend it. Why? Because if the market moves in a way you hadn't anticipated, then that loan could be called in pronto.

A Final Note
Once you've found a loan that makes sense for you, be sure to use your new savings to pay down your principal. And, whatever you do, don't look at your zero-balance credit cards as an opportunity to indulge. Cancel those suckers instead!

Powered by SmartMoney.com

Forbes.com: Personal Finance News
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