Paying off a large sum of debt is a huge financial challenge, especially when credit card debt is involved. The high interest charges keep growing your debt even as you strive to pay it down. Yet despite the difficulty, thousands of Americans paid off their credit cards in 2017. To find out just how they managed the trick, CompareCard conducted a survey of adults who were trying to pay off debt during 2017.
Here's how the majority of the respondents succeeded -- and how you can do the same.
1. Have a plan
A plan is an enormous help for any financial goal, and debt management is no exception: 75% of the respondents who successfully paid down their debt said they had a specific plan that helped them do it.
The snowball method is a popular debt repayment approach that worked well for many of these folks. With this method, you organize your debts by the size of the balance, then start by putting as much money as you can toward the smallest debt (you'll need to keep paying the minimums on your other debts so that you don't end up with late fees). Once the smallest debt is paid off, you switch your focus to the next smallest debt, and so on.
The snowball method works because it gives you a sense of accomplishment: Each debt you wipe out, no matter how small, will feel like a victory -- and will get one creditor off your back. Creating a sense of progress can be a big confidence-booster, making it much easier to persevere as you tackle your debt.
2. Reduce spending
The less money you're spending on other things, the more money you have to put toward credit card payments. Little wonder that 61% of the LendingTree survey respondents said they reduced spending to help them pay down their debt. Of course, finding ways to cut your spending can be as big a challenge as paying down that dratted debt.
Start by looking for ways to ditch one or two big expenses. If you can free up $100 or more each month in a single swoop, you'll be able to make real progress on your debt payments. For example, consider brown-bagging your lunch to work instead of eating fast food. If you save $5 per weekday lunch, that will free up $100 per month for you.
Most people won't have lots of big budget items that they can easily cut, so you'll need to pad your debt payments further by getting rid of some small expenses, too. These small cuts may each save only a few dollars per month, but they'll add up surprisingly quickly.
For example, see if you can carpool to work instead of driving -- you'll save a fair amount on gas. Cut your TV and cellphone packages down to smaller, less expensive plans; suspend your Netflix subscription; if your health allows, switch to a high-deductible health insurance policy to save on monthly premiums; mow your own lawn instead of hiring someone to do it; and so on.
Keep a list of how much money each of these changes is freeing up, and divert that much of your income to your credit card payments. That will keep the newly freed money from disappearing into new and different expenses, as well as give you written proof that your austerity measures really are helping.
3. Have an emergency fund
A well-funded emergency savings account is one of the most powerful financial tools you can have. Keeping just a few thousand dollars saved up for emergencies can help you stay out of debt; when a crisis happens, instead of slapping down plastic to pay for it and ending up with a new wad of debt, you can just pay cash.
Funding such an account can be a lot harder when you're already diverting every penny toward paying down your debt. But it's not a bad idea to siphon off a small bit of your extra income into a savings account for future emergencies. That way, if a crisis comes up while you're still in the middle of paying off your debt, you can use your new emergency savings instead of blowing up your debt again and having to start from scratch.
Once you've paid off your high-interest debts, saving at least enough to cover three months' worth of basic expenses is a great goal for your emergency fund. In the short term, however, your top priority is to pay down debt, not to save money.
Consider limiting your savings for now to no more than $1,000 to $2,000, and give yourself ample time to get there. If you can divert only $50 per month into your emergency savings account, you'll have $600 in there after a year. That's enough by itself to make you an above-average saver; a 2017 Bankrate survey found that 57% of Americans have less than $500 saved up.
These three tricks aren't the only options for getting, and staying, out of debt, but they are the ones that seem to work well for most people. Paying off your debt will still be a challenge and will probably take a while, but it's doable. According to the LendingTree survey, 64% of the people who tried to pay down debt in 2017 succeeded, and the average amount they paid off was $7,500. And if they can hit their goals by using these tricks, then so can you.