What does the American dream look like to you? Does it include a home of your own, a car or two in the driveway and a career that helps you feel happy and fulfilled? Maybe you want or have children, too, regardless of how much it costs to raise them.
Unfortunately, pursuing these dreams can be a costly endeavor. A car and a house, for example, may each require a loan. If you want both, the cumulative effect of those loans can be devastating.
Consider the following debt statistics:
- Average student loan debt for Class of 2017 graduates hit $39,400, according to Student Loan Hero, another LendingTree-owned website.
- Americans have paid banks $104 billion in credit card interest and fees so far in 2018, representing a 35% increase from just five years ago.
- The average new car loan among borrowers came with a payment of $525 a month in the second quarter of 2018, according to Experian’s State of the Automotive Finance Market report. And the bulk of new car loans (about 73%) were for 61 to 84 months long.
High debt could make it difficult to realize your financial dreams. But there are plenty of ways to borrow less, pay off debt you already owe and gain more financial freedom.
Here’s a deep dive into the kinds of debt you may face, as well as practical solutions to help you organize, reduce or pay off debt that stands in your way.
The difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ debt
Not all debt is created equal. There is debt that can help you build wealth, and there is debt that prevents you from building wealth. It’s important to know how to identify which is which. Consider the following.
Tony Liddle, a Wisconsin financial adviser who works for Prosper Wealth Management, said it’s important to note the difference between good and bad debt so that you can focus your debt payoff efforts on the debts that matter most.
Generally speaking, a mortgage for a home you live in is good debt, he said. Your home may go up in value, and everyone needs a place to live. It is also difficult and time-consuming to save up the money to pay for a home in cash, especially in areas of the country where real estate is pricey. So taking out a home loan may be necessary.
But there’s a limit to good debt, since it’s far too easy to borrow more than you can afford. There’s a fine line for sure, but it’s possible to buy more house than you need and wind up with a mortgage payment you can’t afford.
The same can be said for car loans, Liddle said. You may need a car to get to work, but you may not need to borrow the maximum a lender offers.
Student loans can also run in the same vein. Borrowing money to earn a college degree can pay off in spades over the course of your career, but borrowing more than you need to graduate isn’t always smart.
Regardless, it’s important to prioritize your debt so your money is going where it will count the most.
Which debt should you tackle first?
Financial adviser Don Roork, of AssetDynamics Wealth Management and Wisdom for the Wealthy, said consumers should focus on paying off unsecured debt first. This includes debt such as credit cards and personal loans. That’s because unsecured debt can make it difficult to build wealth, but it’s also because it tends to come with higher interest rates. The average credit card currently has an APR of 15.5%, for example.
Here’s one way you may want to prioritize your debt repayment:
- Pay off unsecured debt first, particularly credit card debt with high interest rates.
- Focus on personal loans and other unsecured debt as a secondary priority.
- Tackle auto loan debt since cars depreciate quickly.
- Leave mortgage debt and student loans for last since they tend to come with low interest rates.
Managing your credit card debt
While credit cards can be convenient to use, the exorbitant interest rates they charge can make it difficult to repay balances over time. We already mentioned how the average credit card interest rate is 15.5%, but many credit cards charge even higher rates — particularly to borrowers with poor or fair credit.
Liddle also noted that the gimmicks that credit card issuers come up with can make it hard to avoid them. Some cards offer rewards for every dollar you spend, for example. Offers for 0% APR could also tempt you into spending more than you planned.
If you do wind up with credit card debt that you’re struggling to repay, Liddle said it can interrupt your life in too many ways to count.
“You can’t advance your financial life with investing when you’re throwing all your money into debt and interest payments,” he said. And if you keep making the minimum payment, you’re mostly just paying interest and avoiding real progress. “You’re basically just treading water at that point, which will never help you get out of debt.”
If you want to pay off credit card debt, several strategies can help.
Consider a balance transfer credit card
Some credit cards offer 0% APR on balance transfers for a limited time — usually between 12 and 21 months. These cards let you avoid interest payments during that time, which can expedite your debt payoff process.
Liddle said balance transfer offers can be valuable tools if used strategically, but you should beware of balance transfer fees that can be as high as 5% of your balance. Also, note that your introductory APR only lasts for a while before resetting to a much higher rate.
You can also look for a balance transfer card that doesn’t charge any balance transfer fees. Nick Clements of MagnifyMoney said this option is best for consumers with relatively small amounts of debt ($5,000 or below) that they can pay off quickly.
Negotiate with your creditors
Mike Sullivan, a personal finance consultant with nonprofit credit counseling agency Take Charge America, said it’s possible to negotiate with your creditors if you’re falling behind on your payments.
“Most creditors have hardship programs that extend payments and reduce interest rates but do not reduce balances owed,” Sullivan said. You could negotiate down your interest rate or monthly payment, but you’ll still have to pay off your debts in the long run.
Negotiate for a debt settlement
Sullivan said no creditor wants to be the one left holding the bag while others collect. It’s best to notify all creditors that you cannot and will not be paying off entire debts if you don’t believe you will be able to do so.
From there, you can make an offer to pay about 50% of your balance over three years, or 20% immediately in exchange for a written statement that the amount has been accepted as payment in full for the debt.
That’s just a general suggestion, and this strategy doesn’t always work. But you may want to give it a try if you have credit card debt you truly cannot pay off. Also keep in mind that there are debt settlement companies who can assist you with this process.
Try the debt snowball or debt avalanche
If you have the means to pay off your credit card debt over time, you may make more progress if you’re strategic about it. These two debt repayment strategies may help you stay motivated as you get ahead on your finances.
- Debt snowball: With this strategy, you’ll make large payments on your smallest balances first. This could help you stay motivated as you pay off debt.
- Debt avalanche: You’ll pay off high-interest balances first. This could save you money in the long term.
Either method asks you to pay as much as you can toward the prioritized balance until it’s gone while making the minimum payment on the rest of your debt. Use this calculator to find out which method is better suited for you.
Consolidate credit card debt with a personal loan
Personal loans come with fixed interest rates, fixed repayment schedules and fixed monthly payments that can make paying off debt easier to plan. You may also qualify for a much lower interest rate depending on your creditworthiness. Clements said personal loans are good for people who need a longer timeline to repay their debts and prefer the stability of a fixed-rate, fixed-payment loan. Use our table below to compare multiple options to get the lowest interest rate!
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How to stay out of credit card debt once you pay it off
No matter what strategy you use to pay off credit card debt, it’s far too easy to fall back into old habits. Here are some strategies that can help you avoid getting into more debt once you’ve paid it off:
- Stop using credit cards. Liddle said consumers who are prone to credit card debt may want to avoid using credit cards altogether. “It really depends on the person, but you need to be honest with yourself if you’re someone who can’t seem to use credit responsibly.”
- Only use credit for emergencies. You can keep a credit card for emergencies, but refrain from using it for everyday purchases. Put your credit cards in your sock drawer or a safe so you’re not tempted to use them.
- Set your credit card bill to be paid automatically. If you want to use credit cards for the perks or rewards once you’re out of debt, it would help to set up your bill on autopay so that it’s paid off each month no matter what.
Paying off your auto loan
A car loan can be a valuable tool if you need a vehicle to get to work and can’t afford to pay in cash. But not enough people realize just how harmful huge car payments can be, and far too many tend to buy more car than they can truly afford. Very often, those who take out car loans with bad credit have it the worst since they tend to pay higher interest rates.
Roork said that, most of the time, it boils down to self-image. Consumers want to look like they have money, so they take out car loans for tens of thousands of dollars and pledge to pay them off for up to 84 months. But those $500-plus payments can make it difficult to save money and keep up with other bills. And since automobiles are notorious for depreciating at a rapid pace, huge car loans are akin to setting money on fire.
If you haven’t borrowed money for a car yet and don’t want to make a life-altering car loan mistake, Liddle said it’s wise to limit your loan to just three years. That way, your larger monthly payments have a better chance of keeping up with depreciation as your car loses value. Plus, you’re not making such a lengthy commitment.
If you have a car loan already and you want to pay it off, consider these strategies.
Refinance your car loan
If your car loan has a high interest rate and you believe you can get a better deal, it may be possible to refinance your auto loan into a new loan with a lower interest rate and better terms. If you do get a lower interest rate, refinancing can help you secure a lower monthly payment or make it easier to pay your loan off faster if you continue paying the same amount you’re paying now.
Pay as much as you can each month
Paying more than the minimum payment on your car loan can help you get out of debt faster. Make sure your loan doesn’t have any prepayment penalties, then pay as much as you can each month, whether that means rounding up your payment to the next hundred dollars or adding whatever you can.
Sell your car and start over
If you owe less than your car is worth, you can also sell your car by owner (or through trade-in at a dealership) and start over with a less expensive car. If you owe more than your car is worth (e.g., you owe $10,000 on a car worth $8,000 according to Kelley Blue Book), you will need to make up the difference when you sell.
Tackling your student loan debt
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans with a high school diploma earned an average of $712 a week in 2017, while those with a bachelor’s degree earned $1,173. Workers with a professional degree earned average wages of $1,836 a week last year, while doctoral graduates earned slightly less.
As you can see, student loan debt can be good debt if used wisely. While you are borrowing money to attend college, your loan can pay off in the form of higher earnings for your entire career.
The good news is, federal student loans tend to come with low interest rates and fixed repayment schedules. For that reason, it makes sense to focus on paying off higher-rate and unsecured debts first.
How to lower your student loan payments
But that doesn’t mean your monthly student loans are affordable or easy to handle — even if they’re at a lower interest rate. If you need your student loan payments to be lower, consider these strategies.
Opt for an extended repayment plan that lasts up to 25 years
While the standard repayment plans for federal student loans last 10 years, you can opt for an extended repayment plan that lasts for up to 25 years. You’ll secure a lower monthly payment this way, although you’ll need to pay on your loans for a longer stretch of time.
Check out income-driven repayment plans
Income-driven repayment (IDR) plans let you pay a percentage of your discretionary income for up to 25 years before forgiving your remaining loan balances. Read about the pros and cons of IDR plans before you consider this option.
Find out if you qualify for loan forgiveness
There are myriad student loan forgiveness options, ranging from Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) to special forgiveness for teachers and members of the military. Read about student loan forgiveness options to see if you qualify.
Refinance your student loans
If you have excellent credit (or a cosigner with excellent credit), you may be able to refinance student loans with a private lender who can offer a lower interest rate. But keep in mind that you give up federal protections such as forbearance and deferment, along with access to IDR plans, if you refinance federal loans with a private lender.
How to pay off your student loans
Let’s say you don’t care to lower your monthly payment but prefer to pay your student loans off as quickly as possible instead. Consider these tips.
Refinance your student loans
If you can refinance your student loans with a private lender and get a lower interest rate, you can pay less in interest each month and pay your loans off faster. As we mentioned already, you will give up federal student loan protections and benefits if you refinance federal loans into private loans.
Make additional payments
Paying as much as you can toward your student loans each month will help you get out of debt faster, particularly if you can make extra payments regularly. Since interest accrues on unsubsidized loans during school, making regular payments on those loans can save you even more.
Make payments as soon as you can
While some student loans don’t require payments until after you graduate or after your grace period is over, you should start making payments while you’re still in school if you can. Doing so will reduce your loan balance and help you get out of debt faster.
Sign up for auto-drafted payments
Some student loan servicers offer a .25% discount if you set up your payments to be done automatically.
Paying off your mortgage
The debate over whether to pay off your mortgage has waged on for years. Some experts suggest that you should take as long as possible to pay off your mortgage since you likely have a low interest rate and may be able to write off mortgage interest on your taxes. Others who are averse to debt would rather you pay off your mortgage loan early.
There is no right or wrong answer here, but you may want to focus on paying off your mortgage once your other debt is gone. If you have an adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) and you worry interest rates may rise, for example, focusing on mortgage debt could be a smart move. Perhaps you are less than five years from retirement and want to make sure you have all debt paid off before you settle into a new life with a fixed income.
Maybe you just dislike debt and no longer want to owe anything to anyone. Provided other more important debts are paid off, this is OK as well.
But Liddle notes that you could be better off investing your money instead of prepaying your mortgage. If you have a fixed-rate mortgage loan at 4% APR but you could earn 8% in the stock market, then paying off your mortgage may not be a great deal over the long haul. But again, the right answer for you depends on your attitude toward debt, your appetite for risk and your goals.
If you are seriously considering paying your mortgage off early, here are a few ways to do it.
Review government-backed loan modification and refinance programs
Several government-backed mortgage modification programs exist to help homeowners, including the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP), Federal Housing Administration Streamline refinancing and Veterans Affairs Interest Rate Reduction Refinance Loans (IRRRL). These programs can help you qualify for a lower interest rate that can make paying off your mortgage faster a much easier task.
Refinance your mortgage
You can also refinance your mortgage through traditional means, either to reduce your interest rate, your repayment timeline or both. Refinancing a 30-year loan into a fixed-rate 15-year loan may help you secure a lower interest rate and cut years (or a decade or more) off your repayment timeline, for example. But keep in mind that you’ll have to pay closing costs on a new mortgage loan.
Sell your home and start over
You can also consider selling your home and starting over, keeping in mind that the average real estate agent will charge 6% to sell and market your home. If you were able to sell your home and turn a profit after real estate fees and moving expenses were factored in, you could purchase a less expensive home and start the process over.
Make biweekly payments or extra payments
Also keep in mind that you can pay off your mortgage faster by making extra payments or biweekly payments. With extra payments, you can either round up your payment each month to an amount you can afford or strive to make at least one extra mortgage payment each year. You could also opt for biweekly payments that would result in one extra mortgage payment being made every 12 months since you would make 26 half-payments instead of 12 full mortgage payments.
Dealing with debt sent to collections
No matter how hard you try to stay on top of your debts, there are times when it’s easier just to let things go. Unfortunately, late payments can hurt your credit score and result in late fees and fines that make catching up that much harder.
While creditors may try to collect on a late debt themselves for up to 180 days, your debts in default will eventually be sent to collections. “At that time, the company’s bottom line takes a hit for the amount owed,” Sullivan said.
Some creditors have in-house collections professionals, while others hire outside firms to contact consumers to see if they can get them to pay. Sullivan said, sometimes, creditors will just sell off their outstanding debts to collections companies. Either way, someone is eventually going to contact you about the amounts you owe.
What to expect with debt in collections
Debt collectors tend to get a bad reputation since they are known for hounding debtors at home and at their jobs. Sullivan even said many debt collectors will intentionally try to make the experience uncomfortable so you’ll just pay what you owe to get the calls to stop.
Fortunately, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) spells out limits for debt collectors, as well as penalties for those who threaten, call too late at night or contact employers and family members.
According to Sullivan, the FDCPA permits consumers to notify collectors in writing that they must stop all communication with that consumer, but many do not know this or fail to take advantage of it. Make sure to read up on the FDCPA at our parent company, LendingTree, and know your rights if you feel you are being unfairly targeted or the victim of abusive practices.
How to handle debt in collections
The best way to deal with debt in collections is to deal with debt collectors directly and honestly, Sullivan said. If you decide not to repay your debts and send a letter to ask debt collectors to cease communication per FDCPA rules, debt collections calls should theoretically come to an abrupt halt. If the calls do not end, keep careful records of all contact. “A consumer can take a collector to small claims court for violations of the law and cash awards can be substantial,” Sullivan said.
If you do want to pay off your debt and strike a deal, Sullivan said to put your negotiation cap on. Often, debt collection companies pay only a fraction of the price of your debt to take it over. With that in mind, you could offer a fraction of what you owe and still help them turn a profit. Imagine you owed $10,000 in credit card debt and it got sent to a collections agency that paid only $2,000 to acquire that debt, for example. Even if you offered $3,000 (30%) of the amounts you owed, the collections agency may be inclined to accept it.
The key is to agree on an amount that ends all collection efforts while helping the collection agency get its investment back.
While it may be tempting to ignore debt collectors altogether, this strategy can backfire. Keep in mind that debt collectors can take steps to have your future wages garnished until the debt is repaid, provided the statute of limitations for the debt isn’t up (varies by state), so you can’t just wish it away. Consumers also need to understand that if wage garnishment is successful, their total debt owed can balloon because of late fees, legal fees and interest, Sullivan said.
Bankruptcy: When and where to file
If you’re at the point in your journey where you know you need legal help to get out of debt, it might be time to explore bankruptcy. There are two main types of bankruptcy to consider:
- Chapter 7 bankruptcy makes it possible to discharge your debts completely, although there are exceptions, such as student loans, child support and some tax obligations.
- Chapter 13 reorganizes your debts instead of discharging them. This type of bankruptcy allows you to create a payment plan that will repay all or some of your debts over three to five years.
While both types of bankruptcy could be beneficial depending on your situation, it’s likely that you’ll only qualify for one or the other.
Chapter 7 bankruptcy has a “means test” that limits the amount of income you can have and still qualify, for example. You can only file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy if your income is lower than the median income in your state for your family size. This type of bankruptcy may require you to sell your assets, but your house and cars are protected up to certain amounts that vary by state. Retirement accounts, including 401(k), 403(b)s and IRAs, are also protected fully or up to certain limits.
With Chapter 13 bankruptcy, you need to be able to prove you can afford a repayment plan. You also must have filed both state and federal taxes in the last four years, and have total secured debts below $1,149,525 and total unsecured debts below $383,175. But you do not have to sell any property to make up for shortfalls when you file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy.
Filing for Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy requires an in-depth knowledge of the law and your finances. Further, the U.S. government said mistakes and misunderstandings in your case have the potential to threaten your rights. For that reason, it is strongly recommended that you hire a qualified attorney to help with your bankruptcy case.
Regardless, you can file for bankruptcy on your own and without an attorney’s help. Bankruptcy forms are also available for free online. Bankruptcy is best used as a last resort. Debt consolidation is an option that should be considered before filing bankruptcy. You can compare the two options here.
Setting yourself up for financial success
If you’re someone who is determined to pay off debt that you owe, it’s important to approach your goals with the right frame of mind. Clements said that without the right mindset, no debt-payoff strategy can help you. This is especially true if you’re thinking about refinancing your debt or reorganizing it with another loan.
“Before you think about any product that can reduce an interest rate or shorten a repayment term, you need to make sure you solve the budgeting problem first,” Clements said. “Far too many people think that a balance transfer or debt consolidation will solve their problem, but it won’t” — at least, not until the underlying spending problem is addressed.
If you use a balance transfer card to secure 0% interest and pay down debt but continue using credit cards for purchases you can’t afford, you’re not going to end up any better off once your card’s introductory offer is over, he said.
Here are some of the steps you can take to set yourself up for success:
A monthly budget can help you manage your income and your expenses while also keeping you accountable for each dollar you spend. While there are plenty of budgeting apps out there, you can also budget using a pen and paper. Write out all your bills and all your monthly expenses so you can keep track of where your money goes each month, and you’ll be much better off.
Also take the time to track your spending from the last few months. Break out your bank statements and credit card bills, then tally up how much you spent each month in fluctuating categories such as food and dining out, entertainment, transportation, cable television/internet, clothing, etc. You may be surprised at how much you’re spending in certain categories. If you find areas you can cut in your budget, you can reallocate those extra funds toward your debts.
Both Liddle and Roork suggested a similar approach to emergency funds. Build a $1,000 to $2,000 temporary emergency fund as you pay down debt by saving what you can each month, even if it’s just $50 or $100. Once you’re free from consumer debt, try to save up 3 to 6 months’ worth of expenses to cover emergency medical bills, surprise car repairs, job loss and other surprises life might throw your way.
Automating some of your important bills can also help you stay on track with your spending and goals, particularly if you’re using a budget each month. Automate recurring payments and keep track of them in your monthly budget so you never forget when they’re due and always have money set aside for them. And remember, you can automate payments toward recurring bills and your debts.
Life after debt
Life without debt can be a reality, but it takes a lot of work to get there. Not only do you have to focus on paying off the debts you’ve amassed, but you also need to learn how to avoid debt in the future.
Roork said the key to living debt-free is making sure your lifestyle aligns with your wages — not your wants. If you’re debt-free and budgeting each month, it should become very apparent how much you can afford for housing, food and fun, while also reaching your financial goals. And there’s nothing wrong with occasionally splurging, provided your bills are paid and your needs are met.
It’s all about balance.
“Balance today’s lifestyle with the life you want in the future,” Roork said.
Investing for retirement
To that end, both Liddle and Roork suggest getting on track with your retirement goals once you’re debt-free — or even while you’re paying off debt. If your employer offers a 401(k) or similar plan and you haven’t opened an account yet, doing so should be your first step.
Contribute at least enough to get an employer match if your employer offers one. But both advisers said to aim to save 15% or more, including your employer match, if you want to build up a nest egg you can retire on. Of course, it never hurts to save a lot more than that if you can afford it.
If you’re self-employed, you can open your own retirement account. Consider a SEP IRA, Solo 401(k) or similar retirement account to start saving on your own.
Also remember that anyone can open and contribute to a traditional IRA and may be able to deduct their contributions on their taxes depending on their income. You can also open a Roth IRA, provided you meet income requirements. Keep in mind, however, that you can only invest up to $5,500 a year across both a traditional and Roth IRA ($6,500 if you’re 50 and older).
Saving for other financial goals
Besides investing for retirement, you’ll also want to make sure you’re saving money for other goals you might have. After all, you will likely want to enjoy the spoils of your debt-free lifestyle to a certain extent. Perhaps you want to take a vacation, remodel your kitchen or upgrade to a nicer home. Once you are debt-free, all those goals become easier to accomplish provided you make savings a priority.
We already mentioned how you should strive to save three to six months of expenses for emergencies, but you can also set up savings accounts for other goals, such as for your child’s college education or travel. You may strive to put away at least 10% of your income in cash (outside your retirement accounts) for these goals.
Open a high-interest savings account (or several) and set up automatic deposits in amounts you can afford, whether that’s $100 a week or $100 a month. The key to building up savings is making sure your contributions are consistent and keeping your accounts out of sight so you aren’t tempted to spend money you’ve saved.
A life without debt is entirely possible, and there are myriad benefits to enjoy on the other side. With enough time and hard work, you can build a life that requires few bills or financial stress. You can start saving and investing for a future you can be excited about, and you can break the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle that has plagued you so far.
But like anything else, this process won’t start on its own. Debt freedom won’t magically appear one day, just like money won’t fall out of the sky.
Believe in yourself and focus on the life you want, and you can get out of debt with enough time. Digging your way out of debt won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.
Disclaimer: MagnifyMoney and Student Loan Hero are LendingTree companies. This article contains links from Student Loan Hero and LendingTree.
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