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Paying off major credit card debt

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We've heard the admonishments: You should pay off your credit card balance every month to avoid getting hit with high interest rates that can bring debt to onerous levels, and help keep your credit score in good condition.

But the truth is, many Americans with credit cards tend to carry high balances -- for those who do, the average balance is over $10,000.  And the average credit card interest rate is around 16 percent, according to Put that together and you what can seem like a never-ending debt cycle, which can hurt everything from your credit score to your ability to get a job.

Take stock

If you are swamped by credit card debt and unsure of how to escape it, start by taking stock of all of your debt and assets. Put it all on the table: how much you owe, across all your cards; how much you have in income; what you are spending. By tracking your spending habits, you can begin to see patterns and figure out ways to save.

Make a budget and put the credit card away: What spending is essential and what can be put aside so you aren't getting yourself further in debt?

Financial experts recommend taking a look at what offers may be available to you in order to lower payments or help you pay off a balance without such onerous interest rates. Does one of your cards offer a zero-interest-rate balance transfer? If so, perhaps you could move money over for a small fee and then pay off that balance without accruing additional interest. Remember: Balance transfers are usually for a limited time and you may face higher rates if you miss a payment -- so be sure to check and see if there are any fees or penalties associated before making that move.

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It may be tempting to take a loan against your house or other assets like a 401(k) to pay down high-interest debt immediately. But keep in mind, doing so could put you at risk of foreclosure, or risk your retirement security, since that loan will need to be paid back.

Pay bit by bit

Always make at least the minimum payment to prevent your account from being considered delinquent and avoid late payment fees.  But to pay off your debt faster and reduce the amount you will have to pay in interest, it's best to make more than the minimum payments, and get to a point where you can pay the balance in full each month.  

If there are months where you have fewer expenses, or have extra income from a side gig or bonus check, consider using that money to chip away at the debt. There are several methods to consider when paying off your credit cards. You could start by paying down the card with the highest interest rate first. Or, you may decide it will be better to pay down the card with the smallest balance first so you can more quickly eliminate the need to pay down multiple accounts.  

Seek help

If you can't make the minimum payments, or are behind one or two payments, consider contacting your creditor. They may work with you to set up a payment plan or temporarily reduce interest rates under a hardship plan so you can get your balance paid down and return your account to good standing.  

"You should be very proactive in calling the creditor and asking them if they have a temporary hardship program that can give you enough of a reprieve, whether it is on the payment itself or on the interest rate over a short period of time, so you can regain your financial footing and get your account under control," Bruce McClary, vice president of communications at the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and a former credit counselor, told CBS MoneyWatch. "In most every case, they are very willing to hear your side of the story and they are willing to explore the options to keep the account open."  

If you are far behind on payments or unsure of where to begin making a plan to pay down your debt, consider speaking with a qualified credit counselor. Many credit counseling organizations are nonprofit -- check to make sure that the agency you are contacting is reputable and you won't be charged extra fees for their services. They may help you develop a debt management plan, or help you decide whether a low interest rate loan to consolidate your debt is a viable option. 

And, if you can manage it, try to build an emergency fund while paying off your old debt.  Even setting a goal of having $500 in a savings account can be helpful. By saving with a goal of eventually being able to cover three to six months expenses, you'll be more prepared if there is an emergency -- and won't have to reach for the credit card to cover it.

Keep in mind that repairing your credit score and improving your credit history won't happen overnight.  But the sooner you are able to acknowledge the issue and make a plan, the sooner you will be able to return it to good standing

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