Skip to Content

How to Pay Off Credit Card Debt [COMPLETE GUIDE]

How to Pay Off Credit Card Debt [COMPLETE GUIDE]

Enticing offers, signup bonuses, and rewards programs are just a few of the tactics credit card companies use to reel in their catch (that's you) hook, line, and sinker. Before you know it, you have a stack of credit cards burning a hole in your pocket and a pile of credit card bills burning through your bank balance.

While you might have had a blast putting purchases on your plastic, it's not that much fun getting rid of the debt. So, how do you obliterate your balances?

7 Top ways to pay off credit card debt fast:

  1. Stop Racking Up Credit Card Debt
  2. Pay More than the Minimum
  3. Grow Your Emergency Fund
  4. Pay Down Balances with the Avalanche Method
  5. Give the Snowball Method a Go
  6. Consider a 0% APR Balance Transfer Card
  7. Use Windfalls Wisely

In this post, we'll tackle each of these strategies in depth and answer some common questions about paying off credit card debt the smart way. Let's get cracking!

woman smile paying card

How to Pay Off Credit Card Debt Fast

Whether from everyday purchases, emergency expenses, unexpected medical costs, or chronic overspending, credit card debt can skyrocket swiftly. In fact, many people whip out their cards for large purchases they can't afford to pay upfront. This debt may be further impacted by high interest rates, making it even harder to pay off the balance.

According to a survey of credit card consumers conducted by Bankrate.com, 54% of American adults carry a credit card balance every month. Of those surveyed, 50% have held credit card debt for at least a year, while 14% have carried a balance for five years or longer.

No matter the size of your balance or how long you've had it, the financial load can be burdensome and stressful. Fortunately, there are several effective ways to bring down your balances that won't make you want to cut and run to Mexico or assume a new identity.

1. Stop Racking Up Credit Card Debt

If you envision a debt-free future, you need to put your credit cards on ice (literally, if necessary). Paying down your balance will only be effective if you're not accumulating more high-interest debt, so creating a plan that prevents further spending on your cards is critical to your success.

Here are some simple but impactful tips to help along the way:

  • Create a budget and track your spending. A budget should always start with non-negotiables, such as groceries, rent, utilities, and medications. You'll then want to include other basic necessities and debt obligations like clothing, transportation, loan and credit card payments, and other priority expenses, such as childcare. Once you've determined how much you realistically have left for discretionary spending like insurance, entertainment, and restaurants, you can add those categories. To plan and track more easily, consider using a budgeting app. Just be sure to take stock of your spending every month to see where you can potentially cut back.
  • Get rid of non-essentials. What can you remove from your budget to free up some money for credit card debt? Buying that Starbucks Venti Caramel Frappuccino for $4.95 every morning might make you feel good, but this seemingly small expense adds up. Maybe you don't need three streaming services right now. Maybe you could do without that magazine subscription for a while. Maybe you can cook at home instead of ordering takeout three times a week. When sacrifices need to be made for financial freedom, this is the best place to start.
  • Look for ways to save on essential items. If you're renting more house than you can afford, leaving the lights on when you walk out of a room, or letting the tap run while you're brushing your teeth, you're flushing extra cash down the toilet. Start being more conscious about where you can downsize your lifestyle so that you can downsize your credit card balance.
  • Pay with cash. In a 2015 economic psychology study published by the Journal of Consumer Research, consumer psychologists found that shoppers paying with cash increased their emotional attachment to the item they were purchasing compared to shoppers paying with a credit card. The biggest problem with credit cards is that they create a disconnect between the pleasure of buying and the pain of paying. As a result, credit card users are more likely to overspend or make impulse purchases. Removing the convenience of plastic and handing over physical bills instead can help reframe the way you view money and what you buy with it. Paying cash can also help you avoid any extra fees that may apply when purchasing with a card.

Ultimately, you need to start living within your means if you want to alleviate your credit card debt.

2. Pay More than the Minimum

Although it's tempting to only pay the minimum amount required each month, a balance carried over starts accruing interest immediately. In addition, a substantial portion of your minimum payment goes toward interest rather than the principal amount owed. Over time, this can make any charges to your credit card incredibly expensive.

The other downside to carrying over a hefty balance is that it negatively affects your credit utilization ratio. Credit utilization is simply the total amount you owe versus your total credit limit. For example, if you have a total limit of $20,000 across several different credit cards and your total balance owed adds up to $12,000, your credit utilization ratio is 60%. Since the recommended ratio is no more than 30%, a higher ratio can decrease your credit score. This then increases your interest rate and credit card fees, which works against your debt-reduction goal.

Credit card issuers make money off the interest they charge, so the longer it takes you to clear the debt, the more money they make. Every dollar you pay over the minimum amount will reduce your balance faster. As a result, you'll pay less in credit card interest.

3. Grow Your Emergency Fund

A 2018 report published by the Federal Reserve on the economic well-being of U.S. households revealed that 40% of American adults can't afford a $400 emergency. More often than not, these unexpected expenses are charged to a credit card.

With this in mind, how much can you afford to cover if an unforeseen expense crops up?

Credit cards shouldn't be your fallback, which is why it's crucial to build short-term savings before tackling debt. Most financial experts recommend opening a simple savings account where you keep three to six months of living expenses. That way, if you lose your job, need medical attention, or run into a problem that will leave you with an unexpected bill, you'll have sufficient funds to pay what you owe without relying on your plastic.

4. Pay Down Balances with the Avalanche Method 

One cheap and extremely popular way to pay off credit card debt quickly is the Avalanche Method. It's particularly useful if you have multiple credit cards and want to minimize the amount you pay in interest.

How does the Debt Avalanche Method work for paying off credit cards?

  1. List your credit card debt from the highest interest rate to the lowest
  2. Make the minimum payment on each account every month
  3. Throw extra cash at the debt with the highest interest rate first until it's fully paid
  4. Move on to the debt with the next highest interest rate and repeat

As you repay the most expensive debts first, you'll discover that you can eliminate balances faster since you're not wasting money on interest. This strategy is even more impactful when you pay off a card and then roll what would have been that card's payment into the next one on your list.

The only con that might dissuade you from using this method is if your card with the highest interest rate is also your card with the highest balance. In this case, it might take a while to pay off the card, which can be psychologically demoralizing. If you tend to be motivated by small successes rather than interest savings, the next approach may be right up your alley.

5. Give the Snowball Method a Go

The biggest reason the Debt Snowball Method holds so much appeal for consumers is that it's possible to see progress relatively quickly. If you're someone who prefers quick wins, this can be highly motivating as it gives you the push you may need to stay on track until the end.

Rather than focusing on interest rates, this strategy focuses on your card balances by prioritizing the smallest amount first.

How does the Debt Snowball Method work?

  1. List your debt from the smallest balance to the highest
  2. Make minimum payments on each of these accounts every month
  3. Pay any extra cash to your card with the smallest debt until it's fully paid

2, Move on to the card with the next smallest balance and repeat

As with the Avalanche Method, you'll then roll the payments you would normally make to any paid-off cards into your next smallest debt, and so on. Like a snowball, the payments gradually become bigger until you ultimately eliminate what you owe in full. Besides boosting your confidence and encouraging you to keep moving forward as you see the fruits of your efforts sooner, this method can make the process of paying off credit card debt seem less overwhelming since you'll have fewer outstanding balances to manage.

Whether you opt for the Avalanche Method (save on interest) or the Snowball Method (enjoy quick results) is up to you. The key is to choose a credit card debt repayment plan that you can reasonably stick to as you work toward your goal.

6. Consider a 0% APR Balance Transfer Card

If your credit score is currently in good standing (670 points or above) despite your debt, you may qualify to apply for a balance transfer card. This type of credit card lets you refinance your existing credit card debt by transferring the total amount, or at least part of the total amount, to a no or low-interest card while you clear the balance.

Ideally, you'll want to look for a balance transfer card that offers a 0% APR (annual percentage rate) so that you can enjoy an interest-free introductory period. Although interest will eventually kick in, the 0% APR timeframe can last anywhere up to 21 months, making it a no-brainer if you think you can pay off the debt within that period. Even if you can't, this type of credit card can help you save on interest in the short term and secure better interest rates for when the introductory offer ends.

The only downside to this option is that transfer costs may apply, which can run anywhere between 3% and 5% of the amount being transferred. However, there are some card issuers that don't charge any transfer fees. You may find that the introductory period is restricted, though.

Here are some of the best balance transfer card offers available on the market right now:

Credit Card Intro APR on Balance Transfers Regular APR Annual Fee Welcome Bonus
Wells Fargo Reflect℠ Card 0% for up to 21 months 13.24%-25.24% $0 None
Citi® Double Cash Card 0% for 18 months 14.24%-24.24% $0 None
U.S. Bank Visa® Platinum Card 0% for 20 months 14.74%-24.74% $0 None
BankAmericard® Credit Card 0% for 18 13.24%-23.24% $0 $100 statement credit
Chase Slate Edge℠Credit Card 0% for 18 months 14.99%-23.74% $0 None
Citi® Diamond Preferred® Card 0% for 21 13.99%-23.99% $0 $150 Statement Credit
Chase Freedom Flex℠ Credit Card 0% for 15 months 14.99%-23.74% $0 $200 bonus
Citi Simplicity® Card 0% for 21 months 14.99%-24.99% $0 None
Discover it® Balance Transfer 0% for 18 months 12.24%-23.24% $0 Cashback Match™
Citi Rewards+® Card 0% for 15 months 13.74%-23.74% $0 20,000 points
Chase Freedom Unlimited® 0% for 15 months 14.99%-23.74% $0 Earn an Additional 1.5% Cash Back
Wells Fargo Active Cash℠ Card 0% for 15 months 15.24%-25.24% $0 $200 cash rewards
Discover it® Miles 0% for 15 months 12.24%-23.24% $0 Bonus miles your first year with Discover Match®
Navy Federal Credit Union Platinum Credit Card 0% for 12 months 5.99%-18.00% $0 None
Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card 0% for 15 months 15.24%-25.24% 0 $200 cash rewards
Bank of America Customized Cash card 0% for 15 months 14.24%-24.24% $0 $200
Bank of America® Unlimited Cash Rewards 0% for 15 months 14.24%-24.24% $0 $200
Citi Custom Cash℠ Card 0% for 15 months 14.24%-24.24% $0 $200
Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card 0% for 15 months 15.24%–25.24% $0 20,000 miles

No matter which balance transfer card you choose, be sure to check your post-intro APR and check the fine print so that you know what to expect when the special offer ends.

7. Use Windfalls Wisely

Tax refunds, bonuses, and monetary gifts or winnings serve up the perfect opportunity to splurge. After all, everyone needs a little treat now and then. However, while you're still burdened by credit card debt, it can make any indulgence less enjoyable. Consider using these windfalls to pay down your debt instead. You'll not only reach your financial freedom goals sooner, but you'll also feel less stressed about making repayments.

What if you come across a massive windfall that would allow you to pay off your credit card debt completely?

pay card shop

Is it better to pay off credit card or pay down?

There's a common misconception that carrying a credit card balance can benefit your credit score. The truth is that high balances on revolving credit cards often mean high credit utilization ratios, which negatively impact your credit standing. It's why financial experts generally recommend paying off your cards each month instead of letting a balance—no matter how small—roll over.

Eradicating credit card debt as quickly as possible is not only in your best interest but also keeps your credit in good shape. Plus, you'll save hundreds of dollars in unnecessary compound interest payments.

Can you pay off a credit card with a credit card?

Yes, but not directly. You'll either need to take out a cash advance or use a balance transfer card. Both have pros and cons. Both can cost you in different ways. However, a balance transfer card is often a smart financial decision if you have multiple credit card balances and high interest rates. In this case, you can use a balance transfer to pay off a credit card with a credit card and save.

Should you use savings to pay off debt?

While it might sound like a good idea to dip into your savings accounts, it's not always the best choice. You'll need to weigh up certain factors like your current financial situation, how much you need to pay off, interest rates, and more.

How do you know when you shouldn't tap into your reserves?

Avoid using savings to pay off credit card debt if:

  • You don't have fully funded emergency savings
  • You're struggling to pay bills every month
  • Your credit card debt carries a low or no interest rate
  • You have long-term goals you haven't saved for yet

Unless you have sufficient savings to cover the scenarios outlined above, depleting your nest egg can put you at risk.

Conclusion

We're not going to sugar coat it: pulling yourself from the pit of credit card debt can be daunting. Fortunately, it's not impossible if you leverage the strategies discussed in this post. However, you should take some time to self-reflect and consider how you accumulated a high balance in the first place. Simple changes to your spending habits can go a long way to ensuring your credit cards don't push you into bankruptcy.

Also read: Can I Get a Credit Card With No Job?