1. Paying More Than the Minimum
As you’ve probably summarized, paying only the minimum due on a card is a surefire way not to succeed. Many issuers require you to pay only 2 percent of your current balance.
So why do so many consumers make only minimum payments? In behavioral economics, part of the reason is due to “anchoring” — which means that when it comes to numbers, we can be easily persuaded by the power of suggestion. In a recent experiment, two groups of people were presented with a fictitious credit-card bill.
One group’s bill listed only the balance, while the other bill showed the balance and minimum payment. Some paid the entire balance and some paid only the minimum. But of those remaining, the payment amount was higher among the group whose bill didn’t show an “anchoring” minimum payment.
The good news is that it doesn’t take much of a bump in monthly payments to retire the balance a lot faster. Using the earlier example of the $2,000 balance with an 18 percent APR, increasing your payments from 2 percent to 5 percent would pay off your balance in “only” six and a half years. Not fast enough? Making payments of 10 percent will eliminate a $2,000 balance in 41 months. Our table below shows how long it would take to pay off a $5,000 balance at certain annual percentage rates and monthly payments.
2. Paying Off the Card With the Highest Interest Rate First
Mathematically, this option will result in the lowest amount of interest paid. Chances are, if you carry a monthly balance on one of your accounts, you probably do on a number of credit cards. Your cards might have a range of interest rates. By focusing most of your monthly total credit-card payment on the card that carries the highest APR, you’ll quickly lower the amount of interest you’re paying overall. Of course, if the most expensive card in your wallet has a large balance, this approach has even greater merit because you’ll be slicing away at debt that could be having an adverse effect on your credit score.
3. Paying Off the Card With the Lowest Balance First
This is what has been referred to as the “snowball approach” to paying off debt. You budget a total monthly amount to allocate among all your credit cards. Pay the minimum balance on the cards with the larger balances, and put the bulk of your payback budget toward the card with the smallest balance. When the smallest balance is paid in full, then drive all of those payments into the card with the next lowest balance.
Although you’ll pay a little more in interest (unless the smallest balance is also the one with the highest APR), the number of monthly bills will decrease eventually, giving you the psychological lift that you’re making progress toward retiring your debt. But there are tangible benefits to this approach as well. According to Credit.com, having open accounts with a zero balance might improve your credit score, which may in turn give you more leverage with your remaining creditors. And the additional interest paid by using this approach is modest relative to the total payments you’ll ultimately make.
4. Paying the Highest Balances First
As we mentioned, issuers are taking the axe to credit lines. Borrowers with large balances — especially balances that comprise more than 50 percent of the total line of credit — are especially vulnerable to having their credit limits reduced. And once that happens, your credit bureau reports will show a higher ratio of debt to available credit, which could ding your credit score and spur issuers of your other credit cards to also take adverse action against you.
For that reason, you should strive to keep your balances below 30 percent of your credit line. That can be tough when the card issuer is slashing your borrowing limit in tandem with the paydowns you’ve made. But a methodical approach to ratcheting down your credit-card debt — and the discipline to keep it down by curbing your spending should eventually bring your total debt under control.