If you've successfully dug yourself out from under a pile of credit card debt, congratulations! It's no small task to pay off high credit card balances, given the enormous interest rates that most cards charge. But your task isn't quite complete: If you don't make some changes to how you handle your money, you could end up with a whole new mountain of debt.
Break away from credit cards
The average American has pretty terrible financial habits. Namely, we tend to spend every penny we make and then some (hence our enormous credit card balances). Right now, when you've gotten rid of your high-interest debt, is your big chance to turn things around and become an exception to this rule.
Step one is getting rid of the temptation that credit cards present. It's possible to use credit cards responsibly -- and that comes with some considerable benefits -- but for now, your best bet is to quit cold turkey. If you don't want to cancel your existing credit cards, at least cut them up and hide the credit card numbers somewhere so you won't be tempted to use them.
Balance your income and expenses
Now that you're finished paying off your credit cards, you likely have a large chunk of "extra" income: the money that you were spending on payments. You need to pick a new purpose for that money immediately, or it will just get eaten up in extra day-to-day expenses.
One great option for just about everybody is to start transferring that extra income into a retirement savings account. Unless your retirement plan is to work until you drop dead or live under a bridge, you'll need money saved up to finance your golden years. And while Social Security benefits are certainly helpful, it's a rare retiree who can live on those and nothing else.
If you don't have any cash in the bank, peeling off a percentage of that extra income and using it to fund an emergency savings account is also a great idea. An emergency savings account may be the single best way to keep yourself out of debt in the future. If you have a cash reserve to draw on for large, unexpected expenses, you're much less likely to have to fall back on credit cards during a financial crisis.
Create a household budget
Budgeting is boring, but it's also the cornerstone of a financially healthy household. A simple budget that tracks income and expenses will show you exactly where your money is coming from, where it's going, and what you're getting for it. Budgets can help you identify unnecessary expenses, like that gym membership you've never used or the cellphone plan that's way bigger than you need. Cutting out those expenses will free up yet more income to use in ways that will actually benefit you.
Reintroduce credit cards (carefully)
Credit cards can be a useful way to smooth out your household cash flow, and it's certainly nice to get rewards points or cash back for purchases that you were going to make anyway. If you've gone several months without using a credit card, you've set up a savings plan and followed it faithfully, and you have a budget in place, then you can now consider breaking out one of your credit cards for use in day-to-day purchases.
If you decide to get back into credit cards, it's important to monitor your balances closely for at least the first few months. If they start to balloon beyond what you can pay off every month, your family may not be ready to dive back into credit cards yet. All the rewards points in the world won't make up for the enormous interest charges you'll face if you start carrying balances over from month to month. So take it slowly, keep your balances small, and never use a credit card for impulse purchases. Being cautious now means you won't face being buried in credit card debt again.
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