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If you're wondering how to reduce your credit card debt, know that you have plenty of company. Credit card balances in the U.S. have skyrocketed, to $1.08 trillion as of Q3 in 2023, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Center for Microeconomic Data. As of March 2023, the average amount of revolving credit card debt owed per U.S. household with credit card debt is $7,876, according to NerdWallet’s 2022 American Household Credit Card Debt Study.
Successfully paying off your credit card debt requires a hands-on approach, from determining your best payment strategy to contacting creditors to negotiate rates. Here's how to lower or pay off your credit card debt in five steps.
1. Find a payment strategy or two
Consider these methods to help you pay off your credit card debt faster. Having a concrete repayment goal and strategy will help keep you — and your credit card debt — in check.
Pay more than minimums
Credit card issuers give you a monthly minimum payment, often 2% of the balance. Remember, though: Banks make money off the interest they charge each billing period, so the longer it takes you to pay, the more money they make. The average amount of credit card interest being paid is rising as a result of Federal Reserve rate hikes and increasing amounts of revolving credit card debt. It’s estimated that U.S. households that carry credit card debt will pay an average of $1,380 in credit card interest in 2023, according to NerdWallet’s study.
Look on your credit card bill for a “Minimum Payment Warning,” which will have a table showing how long it would take to pay off your balance if you paid only minimums — and how much interest you'd pay.
The snowball method of paying down your debt uses your sense of accomplishment as motivation. You prioritize your debts by amount, then focus on wiping out the smallest one first. When you’ve paid off that, you roll that payment into the amount you’re paying toward the next smallest, and so on. Like a snowball rolling down a hill, you’ll gradually make bigger and bigger payments, ultimately eliminating your debt.
Similar to the snowball approach, an avalanche approach starts with listing your debts. But instead of paying off your credit card with the lowest balance first, you pay off the card with the highest interest rate. It can be a faster, and cheaper, method than the snowball method.
Automating your payments is an easy way to make sure your debts are being paid so you avoid racking up additional costs in late fees. And if you’re neurodiverse and struggle with forgetfulness or procrastination, automating your payments can be especially helpful. If you’re practicing a debt snowball or debt avalanche approach, however, you will have to be a little more hands-on to make sure you’re contributing exactly what you want to each account. Before you automate your payments, make sure that you have a steady enough cash flow to avoid overdraft charges.
2. Consider debt consolidation
If your credit is good but your debt payments feel overwhelming, consider consolidating them into one account. That way, you only have to make one payment each month to chip away at the balance.
0% balance transfer credit card
It might seem counterintuitive to apply for a credit card when your main goal is to get out of credit card debt, but 0% balance transfer cards can help save you money in the long run. Find a card that offers a long 0% introductory period — preferably 15 to 18 months — and transfer some or all of your outstanding credit card debt to that one account. You'll have one simple payment each month, and you won’t pay interest.
Similarly, you can take out a fixed-rate debt consolidation loan to pay off your debt. Though you will have to pay interest, interest rates for personal loans tend to be lower than for credit cards, which can still help you save some extra cash. Use a debt consolidation calculator to estimate your savings.
3. Work with your creditors
Reach out to your creditors to explain your situation. A credit card issuer may be willing to negotiate payment terms or offer a hardship program, especially if you’re a longtime customer with a good track record of payments.
If your issuer offers a hardship program, it may provide relief when circumstances beyond your control like unemployment or illness impact your ability to manage payments. And even if you aren’t experiencing unemployment or illness, inflation is causing hardship for many people. According to the NerdWallet survey, 45% of employed Americans say their pay hasn’t increased enough in the last 12 months to keep up with inflation.
Whether you negotiate with your issuer or accept the terms of a hardship program, either option could lead to more affordable interest rates or waived fees, depending on the issuer.
These small changes might be just enough to help you get a handle on your debt, and the worst that can happen is they say no.
4. Seek help through debt relief
If the total amount you owe is more than you can pay each month and you’re really struggling to get your debt under control, it may be time to take some more serious steps. Consider debt relief options, such as bankruptcy or a debt management plan.
Debt management plan
Debt management plans are created with the help of a nonprofit credit counseling agency. Counselors negotiate new terms with your creditors and consolidate your credit card debt. You’ll then pay the counseling agency a fixed rate each month. Your credit accounts may be closed, and you may have to forgo new ones for a period of time.
Filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy wipes out unsecured debt such as credit cards, while Chapter 13 bankruptcy lets you restructure debts into a payment plan over 3 to 5 years and may be best if you have assets you want to retain. Bankruptcy can stay on your credit report for 7 to 10 years, though your credit score is likely to bounce back in the months after filing. It’s also possible to use bankruptcy to erase student loan debt and older tax debt, but can be difficult.
Under debt settlement, a creditor agrees to accept less than the amount you owe. Typically, you hire a debt settlement company to negotiate with creditors on your behalf. Read more details on how debt settlement works and the risks you face.
5. Lower your living expenses
While you are taking some or all of these steps to pay off your credit card debt, it’s beneficial to look for ways to lower your living expenses. Doing so may help you free up more money to put towards eliminating your credit card debt.
Some ways to lower your living expenses includes: