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How to get rid of credit card debt and remain debt free

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Americans have racked up nearly $1 trillion in credit card debt, a record amount. High inflation and the end of pandemic stimulus programs have forced many to drain their savings and use credit cards to cover the cost of everyday necessities.

Taking on credit card debt can be a very slippery slope. Having even a small amount of debt without the intention or ability to make payments on time can open the floodgates to taking on more. And with the Federal Reserve’s campaign to control inflation by raising interest rates, paying off credit card debt is increasingly more expensive.

If you’re one of the millions of Americans struggling to get out of credit card debt, there can be a light at the end of the tunnel but it may require a lot of discipline.

Here are some of the best ways to pay off your credit card debt and how to remain debt free going forward.

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Start a budget

Keeping a budget is one of the best ways to ensure you don’t spend more than you can afford, says Marc Russell, founder of BetterWallett, a financial literacy education platform.

He recommends you first take inventory of all your expenses in a typical month (think food, gas, car payments, housing, utilities, debt obligations, etc.). Then allocate a portion of your paycheck to each expense.

If your expenses exceed your income, you should evaluate where you can cut back. Perhaps you could get by without the faster, more expensive internet plan or maybe it’s a matter of taking fewer Ubers and using public transit even if it takes longer.

If you have a portion of your paycheck left over, don’t think of it as extra money because that may tempt you to spend beyond your means, Russell said. Instead, give it a specific label. For instance, if you know you’re going to want to buy makeup in a month set aside some funds under a “beauty products” bucket in your budget.

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But if you can limit spending on items that aren’t necessities that’s even better because you can put that money toward your savings or invest it. Ideally, there shouldn’t be any unallocated portion of your paycheck after you run this exercise through.

This strategy helped Russell pay off $10,000 in credit card debt he accumulated after he graduated college in 2012. He continues to budget this way and sets aside $20 a week for his 2011 model car which he anticipates needing to repair in the near future.

Debt repayment calculator

After you’ve done that, map out how long it will take you to pay off your credit card debt. You can get a sense by plugging in your balance, interest rate and the monthly payment you expect to make into a debt repayment calculator.

The average American has $5,910 in credit card debt, according to Experian. The average annual percentage rate (APR) on a card is currently 20.37%, according to Creditcards.com.

If Americans were only making their credit card’s monthly required payments, which is typically around 2% to 3% of their balance if they owe more than $1,000, it would take five years to pay off all the debt.

Contact your credit card company

If you’re having trouble making minimum monthly payments, you should contact your credit card company, said PNC Bank’s head of Credit Cards, Rachana Bhatt.

If you don’t make these payments, the company may tack on more fees and raise the interest rate on your debt. Additionally, it will hurt your credit score.

“Be proactive and stay in contact with your creditor or lender,” Bhatt said. “They may be able to help and offer additional resources or repayment options.”

Balance transfer credit card

Once you have a budget and a plan for how you will pay off your debt, it may be worth looking into getting a balance transfer credit card. These cards often have introductory offers where you can get 0% APR for up to 21 months. For a small fee, usually around 3% to 5% of your debt, you can transfer it to the new card and essentially pay off your debt interest-free.

For Americans with the average amount of credit card debt, the transfer fee would amount to around $240. But if they can pay down their debt during the 0% APR period, they’ll save around $3,185 in the interest they’d otherwise pay if they made minimum monthly payments for five years.

If they don’t pay off their debt before the 0% APR period ends, it will be subject to the card’s regular APR. That’s why it’s crucial to stick to a plan for paying off debt, Russell said.

It’s also important to remember that the 0% APR doesn’t always apply to new purchases you make with a balance transfer card. And not everyone may qualify for 0% offers, especially if they have a credit score below 669, according to Experian.

Consolidate credit card debt

One option to consider is a credit card or debt consolidation loan. These loans often advertise lower interest rates to combine all your debt and repay it under one loan.

Bhatt from PNC Bank said it’s also “a great tool for eliminating multiple payments being sent on a monthly basis and reducing them into one monthly payment.”

Under a debt consolidation loan, the lender will either directly deposit the money in your bank account with the expectation that you use it to pay off the debts you’re consolidating or the lender will pay the balances for you. That does not mean you’re debt free. You’re responsible for making a monthly payment to the lender.

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The downside is these loans often require you to pay off your debt for a longer period of time which can end up costing you more than if you didn’t go the debt consolidation route.

Elisabeth Buchwald is a personal finance and markets correspondent for USA TODAY. You can follow her on Twitter @BuchElisabeth and sign up for our Daily Money newsletter here

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Best ways to pay down credit card debt: Balance transfer cards, more

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