Even though I got my first credit card more than 25 years ago, I remember it like it was yesterday.
I was a freshman attending the University of California, Irvine. At age 18, just receiving an invitation to apply for a credit card made me feel so grown up.
Back then, credit card solicitations were everywhere on campus: in the student center, the library, and stuffed into bags at the bookstore. Not to mention all those tables lined up along various campus walkways where people hawking credit card applications would ask: “Do you want a free T-Shirt?”
Of course, I did!
So, I happily filled out a credit card application in order to get the freebie, but also to step into what I thought was adulthood.
More credit card offers quickly followed, nearly all of which I also quickly accepted.
A Lack of Financial Literacy
Well, fast forward a few years later, and – not surprisingly – I discovered that I wasn’t quite ready for being a financially responsible adult.
Despite earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from UC Irvine and then going on to obtain a Master of Arts degree in Journalism from the University of Southern California, I’d never learned about the importance of paying bills on time, keeping my debts low, or living on a budget. In fact, in college and while growing up in Los Angeles, I’d never really been taught anything about personal finances.
Consequently, I mis-used plenty of credit cards by overspending well into my 20s, only making minimum payments, and just generally making a mess of my finances.
The pattern continued into my early 30s when I had kids. By then, however, I’d already moved to the East Coast – an area just as expensive as Southern California.
So even though I started earning really good money, I was also spending a ton of money. In fact, I was spending more than I earned – which is always a recipe for financial disaster. There was travel, electronics and gadgets, private school tuition for my then two young children, eating out, and more.
Before I knew it, I had amassed a whopping $100,000 in credit card bills alone!
That was back in 2001.
Once I realized the enormous financial hole I’d dug for myself, I made a commitment to wiping out those bills as soon as possible.
It wasn’t easy, but three years later, by 2004, I’d repaid all of my obligations – and I did it without filing bankruptcy or ever missing a single payment.
I then wrote a book about getting out of debt, called Zero Debt: The Ultimate Guide to Financial Freedom. It became a New York Times best seller.
In 2010, I wrote a revised, updated version of Zero Debt and then, in 2017, the third edition of Zero Debt was published. That’s because even though I became debt-free, the debt problem for many other Americans, unfortunately, has only gotten worse over the years.
As of this writing in 2023, Americans collectively owe a record $1 trillion in credit card debt; that’s even more consumer debt than we had during the Great Recession.
But if I could dig myself out of $100,000 in credit card debt in just three years, I know that you can get out of debt too.
Here are five strategies to get started.
Stop ignoring your debt by listing EVERYTHING you owe
If I asked you right now: How much total credit card debt do you owe?, would you know the answer? Many people can’t accurately answer that question.
Instead of just estimating or guessing about your total debts – or worse, ignoring the problem by stuffing credit card statements in the drawer – take a tally of everything that you owe. This is simple to do.
You can pull out your last monthly statements, get online to check what you owe, or call your creditors to get current outstanding balances.
Once you get up-to-date figures, write down each debt. You can use pencil and paper, a spreadsheet, or whatever method you’d like. The important thing is just to record all the exact totals so you have a true picture of your overall debt situation.
Listing all of your debts in black and white is the first step in confronting your debt challenges and tackling the issue head on.
Always pay more than the minimum payment
Did you know that most credit card issuers only require you to pay 1% to 2% of the outstanding balance each month? That’s one of the reasons that so many people stay in debt year after year.
If you want to get rid of your debts faster, and save money on interest charges too, you absolutely must pay more than the minimum payments each month.
When possible, try to double or even triple the minimum payment. The more aggressively you can pay, the better.
But if that’s simply not possible, do know that every little bit helps. So even if you can only swing $5 to $25 extra, above the minimum payment, that’s far better than only making minimum payments.
Start using cash more often than plastic
As a Money Coach, I’ve seen many people putting everything from lifestyle costs to everyday expenses on their credit cards. If you can’t pay off your balances in full each month, this is a no-no, as such routine spending only adds to your debt burden.
If you’re regularly paying for things like groceries or gas for your car with your credit cards, you could be unwittingly digging yourself deeper into debt.
A better strategy is to put the credit cards away (at least temporarily) and get into the habit of using cash more often than plastic. This one change can do wonders in helping you get out of debt more rapidly.
Create new rules for using your credit cards
If you truly want to become debt-free, you can’t keep repeating the same financial mistakes or doing the same things you’ve done in the past. To break old patterns, it’s wise to create new rules for when and why you will use your credit cards.
The specific rules are up to you. But while you’re proactively repaying debt, you only want to charge what you can realistically pay off in full each month.
So perhaps that means you’ll only spend a pre-set dollar amount each month on your cards. Or maybe you’ll decide to restrict credit card usage to a specific category, like paying utilities. Another alternative: you could choose to only use your cards for emergencies for a few months to help better control your spending.
Just make sure that the precise rules you choose to adopt are reasonable and appropriate for your circumstances – and that the rules help you avoid sinking further into debt.
Use windfalls to help knock out debt faster
Finally, a tried-and-true method to become debt free is to apply any windfalls received toward your credit card bills.
A windfall is “extra” money that you get outside of your normal paycheck.
This “extra” money could be any lump sum of cash – like a tax refund check; gift money received for your birthday, the holidays or a special occasion; funds from an insurance claim or divorce settlement; or even assets received from an inheritance.
Whenever you come into large chunks of money, at least some of those funds should be used to help you knock out debt.
By using the five strategies highlighted above, you’ll get out of debt faster than you thought possible.
And from personal experience, I can tell you that being debt free is just the beginning. When you overcome your debt woes, you’ll have less stress, more peace of mind, and greater financial security for you and your family.
Isn’t that worth getting rid of debt?