Question: For the past year I’ve been spending all of my extra monthly income on paying off my credit cards and student loans – but to be honest – it’s leading to a lower quality of life. I’m just not allowing my self to spend money on those little things like the movies and going to dinner with friends. How can I balance being smart with paying off my debt, but not living in a “Netflix and chill” only bubble? I don’t want to eat ramen noodles for the rest of my life.
— David in Florida
Howard Dvorkin CPA answers…
This is one of the most common and troubling questions I hear. It pains me, because Americans who really want to get out of debt are fast becoming a rarity. As I’ve written before, being in debt is becoming a terrible new normal.
An exasperated woman once asked me, “How can I get out of debt when I have no money — which is why I got into debt in the first place? Is there any bigger Catch-22?”
I don’t know if there’s a bigger Catch-22, but I know of few more pervasive and painful. Fortunately, there are seven concrete steps you can do. None involve ramen noodles.
1. Pay what you can smarter
If you’re making monthly payments on several credit cards, don’t make the mistake of making minimum or minimal payments equally to each card. You either want to pay off the card with the highest APR or the card with the lowest balance. Learn more: Credit Card Debt Reduction Plans.
2. Ask and you shall reprieve
This sounds too easy to be true, but you can simply call your credit card company and ask for a lower interest rate. Why would they do this? Because they might not want to lose a good customer. Like anything else, there’s a right and proper way to ask. Learn how by reading Credit Card Interest Rate Negotiation.
3. Move your debts
Some credit cards offer a zero-percent introductory interest rate, and they let you transfer your current high-interest debt. Why? Because, sadly, they know most folks won’t pay off their debts by the time the introductory period (up to 18 months) ends. If you do it right, however you can save thousands. Here’s how: Credit Card Debt Transfer for DIY Consolidation.
4. Condense your debts
In some cases, it makes sense to take out a loan to consolidate all your debts into one monthly payment that’s lower than all the little payments you’ve been making. It’s relatively easy if it makes sense for your financial situation, but of course, it’s a tad complicated to figure out if it’s indeed right for you. That’s why you first need to read the Credit Card Debt Consolidation Loan Guide.
5. Consult an expert
Of the options on this list, my favorite is surely this one: credit counseling. There might be no such thing as a free lunch, but there is such a thing as a free debt analysis from a certified credit counselor. Many people don’t pursue this because they don’t believe it. I urge you to read Credit Counseling: Certified Credit Card Debt Help and become a believer.
6. Learn about DMPs
That’s short for debt management program. Unlike credit counseling, you’ll pay a small fee, but in exchange, you’ll reduce your total monthly payments by 30 to 50 percent. These programs have been around for decades and have helped millions. Check out the Debt Management Program Guide.
7. Settle for less
Finally, you can simply settle your debts for less than you owe, sometimes even half. This is the most complicated option, and not one you should entertain frivolously. Read the details here: Credit Card Debt Settlement Programs.
I don’t know which option is best for you, David. In fact, more than one might be best. However, I don’t know how much you owe, at what interest rates, how much you earn, what your must-pay bills are, and if you have other debts like a car payment or mortgage.
These are the questions you’ll be asked if you pursue a free debt analysis with a credit counseling agency. I’d suggest you do that first. The sooner you do, the sooner you can replace ramen with steak!
Have a debt question?
Email your question to email@example.com and Howard Dvorkin will review it. Dvorkin is a CPA, chairman of Debt.com, and author of two personal finance books, Credit Hell: How to Dig Yourself Out of Debt and Power Up: Taking Charge of Your Financial Destiny.