It’s easy (and often fun) to get into debt, but it can be painfully difficult to get back out. It can take just a few months to create tens of thousands of dollars in debt, but it may take decades to pay off that debt.
Everyone who pays off their debt does it a different way. They often combine strategies to chip away at their debt, and they stick with those strategies until the debt is gone. If you're struggling and need a starting point for your debt-reduction strategy, here are some ways to get out of debt.
Stop Creating More Debt
This alone won’t get you out of debt, but at least your debt won’t get worse. If you continue adding debt, it will be much more difficult to make progress on reducing your debt, if you make any progress at all. Reduce your temptation to create more debt by taking a break from your credit cards or even freezing your credit.
Increase Your Monthly Payment
The less you pay toward your debt balances every month, the longer it'll take to pay off your debts. Interest can exponentially expand the timeline for your debt repayment. Any remaining debt balance racks up interest charges every month.
Take credit card debt, for example. In February 2020, the average credit card interest rate was roughly 15%. That means that any credit card debt you have gets 15% worse every month. By increasing your monthly payments, you reduce the balance that's subject to that 15% interest.
It’s only ok to pay the minimum on some of your credit cards when you have a debt-repayment strategy that requires you to make a big payment on one of your credit cards. The key is to be making significant dents in at least one of your outstanding balances every month.
Build an Emergency Fund
An emergency fund may sound counterintuitive if you’re trying to get out of debt—you could be using that money to pay off your debt instead of sticking it in a savings account—but an emergency fund can actually keep you from creating more debt. These savings provide you with a safety net you can use when an emergency expense arises, which saves you from reaching for your credit card. The ideal emergency fund is six to 12 months' worth of living expenses, but you can start by building up at least $1,000, or whatever you can manage to put into a savings account.
Pick a Debt and Give It All You've Got
Some people increase all their minimum payments by just a little bit, but that way your payments only drop by a small amount each month. You can make more noticeable progress by making a big payment to just one of your accounts each month until that debt is completely repaid. In the meantime, make the minimum on all your other accounts. Then do the same for another debt, and then another, until they’re all paid off.
Ask Your Creditor for a Lower Interest Rate
Higher interest rates keep you in debt longer because so much of your payment goes toward the monthly interest charge and not toward your actual balance. However, interest rates can be negotiable, and you can ask your credit card issuers to lower your interest rate. Creditors do this at their discretion, so customers with good payment histories are more likely to successfully negotiate lower rates.
You may be able to find a lower interest rate by seeking out promotions. If you use a balance transfer to get a lower rate, try to pay off the balance before the promotional rate expires. After that promotional period, your balance will be subject to higher interest rates.
Look for Ways to Put More Money Towards Your Debt
The more money you put toward your debt, the faster you can pay off your debt for good. If you don’t already have one, create a monthly budget to better manage your money. Seeing all your expenses detailed in a budget can also help you figure out how you could cut out some expenses and use that money for your debt. You may also be able to come up with extra money for debt by selling things from your home or generating income from a hobby.
Withdraw From Your Retirement Fund
In extreme cases, you may consider pulling money from your retirement account to pay off your debt. Beware, if you’re not at least 59½, you’ll face early withdrawal penalties and additional tax liability. The specific penalty you'll face depends on the retirement account you draw from and how you spend the money, but the standard early withdrawal penalty is a 10% tax. Plus, when retirement comes around, your savings will be short—not only from the money you withdrew but also from the interest, dividends, and capital gains you could have earned with that money.
It's possible to borrow from work-sponsored retirement plans, such as a 401(k). However, this strategy comes with risks, as well. If you leave your job, you’ll have to pay back the loan on an expedited timeframe that could worsen your debt problems.
Cash out a Life Insurance Policy
You may have accumulated some cash in your whole or universal life insurance policy that you can put toward your debt. Like tapping retirement funds, this is a risky strategy that can come with tax consequences. Borrowing from your insurance policy is also an option, but it may affect the death benefit your beneficiaries will receive.
Settle With Your Creditors
Debt settlement may be a solution if your accounts are past due or you owe more money than you could repay over a few years. When you settle your debts, you ask the creditor to accept a one-time, lump-sum payment to satisfy the debt. Creditors who agree to a settlement offer also agree to cancel the rest of the debt, but they typically only accept these offers on accounts that are in default or at risk of defaulting.
Go Through Credit Counseling
Some companies specialize in negotiating with creditors on your behalf. Debt management plans through these credit counseling agencies typically last four to six years. Your debt won't disappear overnight, but you may get a lower interest rate. The credit counseling agency will handle your debt payments, so if you send in any extra payments, you'll have to tell the agency which debt to put the extra payment toward. This is basically the snowball method of paying off debt, except the credit counseling agency is managing your payment.
These debt settlement plans can come with serious strings attached, so read the fine print carefully before agreeing to work with an agency. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has tips and warnings for those considering a debt settlement plan.