The holiday decorations have been put away, the gift boxes recycled. Now it’s time to pay the cost of December’s gift and entertainment binge.
Many consumers had credit card debt even before the holidays. Average card balances climbed to $6,629 in mid-2019, up from $6,354 two years earlier, according to a report from the credit bureau Experian. The average debt “revolved,” or carried over, was 30% of the credit limit — the same as in 2017 — suggesting people are managing debt “responsibly,” the company said.
Still, with the average card interest rate at about 17%, carrying a balance on a credit card is expensive. And many people probably added to balances late in the year. The financial website MagnifyMoney found that just under half of consumers said they had taken on debt this holiday season — an average of $1,325, up 8% from last year — and most won’t be able to pay it off in January. (The survey of 1,120 consumers was conducted just before Dec. 25.)
“If you can pay it all off in January, then no problem,” said Dave O’Brien, head of the board of directors of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, a trade group for fee-only financial planners. If not, he said, make a plan to pay down the balances — by April, if you can swing it.
“Make the monthly payments high enough that it hurts,” O’Brien said.
Mark Wernig, principal at Dowling & Yahnke Wealth Advisors in San Diego and a spokesman for the Certified Financial Planner Board, which oversees standards for financial planners, said he also recommended paying off holiday debt in the first 90 days of the new year.
He suggested using a simple paper calendar. That allows people to mark off the dates for payments as well as visualize the goal of finishing by the end of the first quarter.
“It needs to be confronted,” he said.
After creating a list of your card balances and their interest rates, Wernig said, try calling the card companies to ask if they’ll lower your rate. They may be agreeable if you have a consistent payment history.
People with good credit, he said, might also consider consolidating their card debt by taking out a lower-interest personal loan. Similarly, they may consider opening a new credit card with a zero or low introductory interest rate and transferring high-rate balances to the new card. Bear in mind, though, that most balance transfer cards charge a fee of at least 3% of the balance you are moving. And you’ll need to be disciplined, advisers said, to avoid adding new debt onto the old cards.
Some credit cards, like American Express, offer the option of paying off part of a balance over time for a flat monthly fee, which may save you money and avoid the need to apply for a new credit card. (The option is called Pay It Plan It.)
When you are ready to start paying off the debt, Wernig said, consider making payments biweekly, rather than monthly, to shrink the balance more quickly and reduce the interest paid.
If a three-month time frame means the payments are unaffordable, consider a longer-term plan. Perhaps divide the total debt by 12 and pay it off, along with the added interest, over the coming year, said Scott Buttfield, a financial planner in Red Bank, New Jersey.
Allen Purkiss, a financial planner in Ridgefield, Connecticut, said he occasionally saw clients who owned stock in their investment portfolios but were also carrying credit card debt. His advice to them is to sell some shares and pay down the card debt. No one knows what the market will do in the future, of course. But it may not be reasonable to expect recent double-digit market gains to continue, so using stock to get rid of high-interest card debt makes sense.
“In the current environment,” he said, “it usually makes sense to lower equity exposure and lower debt.”
Don’t have any stocks to sell? There are other options. Making extra cash by selling items you no longer need has become easier, with online options like eBay and local Facebook groups, said Cynthia Meyer, a financial planner in Gladstone, New Jersey. Focus on high-quality clothes or children’s toys in good condition, she said — and be realistic about how much people will pay for your used items.
Scour your card statements for subscriptions and services you don’t really need, O’Brien said. If you have an emergency cash account, he said, it may make sense to use at least part of it to pay off the cards. Or perhaps you have a tax refund coming that can at least partly offset your debt.
Cutting back on extra spending like restaurant meals and travel, and putting the money toward your card debt, can seem less painful in February since it’s a short month. Observing an annual belt tightening — sometimes called “frugal February,” can help you get back on track, O’Brien said.
If you have points on your credit card, January could be a good time to redeem them and apply them to your bill.
Taking out a home equity line of credit to pay off credit card balances may get you a lower interest rate, but you’ll probably pay fees to arrange it — and unlike card debt, the line is secured by your home.
“I’m not a big fan because ultimately you’re putting your home on the line and risking foreclosure” if you can’t make the payments, said Justin Pritchard, a financial planner in Montrose, Colorado. He said a home equity line of credit should be reserved for emergencies, like a significant medical bill, rather than holiday spending.
The same goes for taking out a loan from your workplace 401(k) plan. Doing so means you may miss out on potential market gains, putting your retirement savings at risk.
O’Brien recommended a less drastic option: Temporarily reduce your retirement contributions and put the money toward debt reduction, then resume regular contributions — at a higher level — to keep retirement savings on track.
Here are some questions and answers about holiday debt:
How can I avoid running up debt for the next holiday season?
George Barany, director of America Saves, an initiative of the Consumer Federation of America, recommends regularly setting aside a small amount of money — even if it’s just $10 or $20 a paycheck — in a dedicated account, like the old Christmas Clubs, to avoid using credit cards at the holidays.
“Try to save automatically so you’re not in that same situation,” he said. If you have direct deposit, you can ask your bank to split your paycheck between a checking and savings account. (You can also set up automatic transfers yourself if you bank online.)
Some mobile apps and banks offer new tools for making saving easier. KeyBank, for instance, offers Easy Up, an option that moves $1 into a savings account each time you make a purchase with your debit card.
Often, Meyer said, people plan well for recurring monthly expenses but stumble when setting aside cash for known but “irregular” expenses, like holiday spending and vacations. She suggested adding up all of those anticipated costs and setting aside a fixed amount for them each pay period to reduce the need to carry a balance on credit cards.
“Think of these things as part of your monthly budget,” she said.
Online budgeting tools can help. Wirecutter, a New York Times affiliate, recommends You Need a Budget.
And rethink your holiday budget if it has become a burden. Relentless marketing pushes people to meet expectations they can’t afford, O’Brien said, leaving them stressed and in debt.
“It’s a ridiculously expensive season,” he said. “And it wasn’t always this way.” Planning for more reasonable gifts, he said, can help set you up for success next December.
Should I always pay off the card with the highest interest rate first?
Some people may prefer to pay down the costliest balance first, while making minimum payments on the other cards. Then, when the first card is paid off, extra payments are shifted to the card with the next highest interest rate, and so on, until all balances are paid off. This approach can save the most in interest charges.
Others, however, may prefer paying off the card with the smallest balance first, regardless of the interest rate. The idea is that seeing a balance paid off imparts a sense of accomplishment and encourages you to keep on paying off your debt.
“It really depends on what keeps you motivated,” said Madison Block, a spokeswoman for American Consumer Credit Counseling, which advises people on debt reduction.
What if I’m struggling to make minimum card payments?
If you can’t see a realistic way to pay down your debt, you may want to seek advice from a nonprofit credit counseling firm. The firms typically offer free budget counseling and can also help negotiate — for a fee — debt management plans with credit card companies, which will allow you to pay off your debt at a lower interest rate over several years. To find a reputable firm, start by checking the Justice Department’s list of firms authorized to provide mandatory bankruptcy counseling.