The gifts have been opened and the expressions of surprise were priceless. Yet, chances are your wallet is feeling a little thin.
Consumers spent more on holiday gifts this year than last year, studies show, and many splurged without doing the math on how much they could actually afford. About 51 percent of people set no budget for holiday spending and another 15 percent of shoppers ignored their budgets and spent more than they had planned, according to a survey by MagnifyMoney.com. Of those who used credit cards to fund their shopping sprees, close to 40 percent said they don’t think they can afford to pay off their cards this month, the poll found.
If you find yourself with more debt than expected after the holiday festivities, here are some tips for tackling that debt as quickly as possible.
▪ Set a deadline. Having a timeline in mind for when you would like to be debt-free can help you figure out how much you'll need to pay toward the cards each month, says Nick Clements, co-founder of MagnifyMoney.com. Say you have $1,000 in credit card debt and set a deadline of being debt free by May. You know you'll need to pay at least $200 a month, depending on your interest rate.
▪ Tackle one card at a time. Another tactic you can use is to direct all extra cash after making at least the minimum payment to one card first. That can make it easier to track your progress and may save you money on interest, Clements says. For instance, say you’re paying $300 to one card and $100 a month to a second card. Once the first card is paid off, all $400 could go to the second card. Some people may be more motivated by paying the card with the smaller balance first. But tackling the card with the higher interest rate first can save you more in interest charges, Clements says.
▪ Be smart with extra cash. Are you getting a year-end bonus? Or are you expecting a tax refund in the next couple of months? Use those windfalls to make large payments on your debt, says Rod Griffin, director of public education at Experian, a credit reporting agency. “Don’t look at these things as free money to spend,” Griffin says. “Use them to pay down debt and boost your credit score.”
▪ Automate payments. Once you decide how much you can afford to pay toward each card every month, set the plan on autopilot, Clements says. Making the payments automatic makes it more difficult to be late or to spend the money accidentally, he adds.
▪ Ask for a lower interest rate. If your debt is on a credit card with a high interest rate, you may save by calling your card issuer and asking them to offer you a lower rate, says Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst for CreditCards.com. About two-thirds of cardholders who asked card issuers for a lower interest rate had their requests approved, according to CreditCards.com. But only one quarter of consumers have ever asked, the survey found. It helps if you have a strong credit score and a track record of paying on time, but all consumers should at least ask for a break, Schulz says.
▪ Consider a balance transfer. If you think it will take you longer than six months or a year to pay off the card, Clements says, you might want to consider transferring the balance to a card with a lower rate to cut down on interest charges. But, Schulz says, before deciding, consumers should factor in balance transfer fees and the rate they'll face after the introductory period is over. If you find a good deal, you should act quickly, he adds, since some banks may increase fees or shorten the introductory period on cards in response to the Federal Reserve’s decision this month to raise short-term interest rates.
▪ Get help. If you feel as if you’re in over your head, think about getting help from a credit counselor, Griffin says. Someone from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, a nonprofit organization that helps people become financially stable, may have suggestions on how you can adjust your plan.