3 Ways to Cure a Credit Card Hangover

01/09/2012 10:22 am EST

Focus: MONEY MANAGEMENT

Terry Savage

Author, The Savage Truth on Money

If you overdid last month, you may be dreading January's credit card bill, but don't ignore it. These three tips from MoneyShow.com personal finance expert Terry Savage will help minimize your fees and get those balances paid off.

Here they come—the post-holiday credit card bills. They’re a potent reminder of the cost of the holiday season.

In just the one week before Christmas, it’s estimated that Americans spent $44 billion. Much of that last-minute shopping was done in a frenzy of emotion, without thinking about the cost of the gift—or the finance charges that will accrue until the bills are paid.

How will you deal with those bills that start arriving in your mailbox this week? Well, don’t just set them aside and let them pile up, hoping to keep the holiday glow alive. Late fees are very costly, and will result in even more interest charges. Open the bills, take a close look—and add up what you owe.

Here are three Terry’s Tips for dealing with your credit card bills promptly—even if you can’t pay the full balance.

Paydown Plan
Beware of that comforting little number—the minimum monthly payment. Yes, it keeps your credit in good standing if you pay only that amount, but it leaves such a huge balance that soon you’re paying interest not only on your purchases, but on the finance charges from previous months.

And the way the minimums are calculated, it could take as long as 30 years to pay off your card if you only make the required minimum monthly payments!

Instead, take the current minimum payment, and double it—and pay that amount. Then write that number down on your checkbook or a post-it on your computer screen, and keep paying that same amount, no matter what the next bill says.

If you keep paying double the original minimum, and never charge another penny, your balance will be paid off in less than three years! This works, no matter the size of your current balance.

Transfer Balances
Another way to deal with the problem is to transfer the balance to another card. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking that by transferring your balance to another card you are making a dent in your obligation.

But if you have a high interest rate card, you can save some money on finance charges—for a while—by transferring your balance. At www.LowCards.com, there are some tempting card offers of 0% finance charges for a period of up to a year. That will give you some breathing room while you pay down the balance.

But read the fine print on each offer. When the grace period expires, the rate could jump dramatically. And you may have to pay a balance transfer fee in the month after you transfer—so ask about how much that could cost you. And, of course, if your credit is already in trouble, no card issuer wants to deal with your balance.

Get Help
Don’t be a sucker twice. This is the time of year when all kinds of ads and commercials appear offering to help you negotiate your credit card balances. These companies know that in the next few months, consumers will be most desperate.

But there is only one place to turn for reliable advice and help. The National Foundation for Consumer Credit has member agencies across the country. If you call their toll-free number—800-388-2227—you’ll automatically be connected to the nearest local agency. Or go to their Web site at www.NFCC.org for more information.

You can make an appointment for a personal visit, or discuss your situation over the phone. The counseling is free, or at a very low cost. And if you just talk to them about the best way to handle your situation, there is no record of the counseling on your credit report.

If you are truly buried in debt, they will help by putting you on a debt repayment program, where you send them one agreed-upon check every month, and they parcel the money out to your creditors, who have agreed to take a lower payment. They can sometimes reduce interest charges and get previous fees waived. This plan does go on your credit report—but can help you to a fresh start.

The agencies do receive subsidies from card issuers—but they are honest and will let you know if bankruptcy is a better alternative.

Credit card debt is a problem that grows like an untreated disease if you don’t pay attention. Despite bankruptcies and charge-offs in recent years, Americans still have nearly $1 trillion in outstanding credit card balances.

You can complain about the banks and card issuers making so much money collecting all that interest and fees. But the best way to get back at them is to use their money for a month—and then pay your balance in full. That’s the Savage Truth.