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There’s plenty of cookie-cutter financial advice out there: Earn more money. Cut up your credit cards. Eat out less. Make coffee at home. These kinds of tips are obvious and, at times, may not be helpful. So before you cut up your credit cards, explore these realistic strategies on how to get out of debt.

Here’s how the debt snowball method works. Step 1: List your debts from smallest to largest. You can pay off debt faster! Get started with a FREE trial of Ramsey+. Step 2: Make minimum payments on all debts except the smallest—throwing as much money as you can at that one.

In this guide…

Which debt should you pay off first?

When deciding how to best tackle your debt payoff, it’s important to become familiar with your financial obligations and which you want to repay first:

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  2. Gather Your Data. To start to get out debt, start by knowing where you stand. You want to have a.
  • Credit card debt
  • Student loan debt
  • Auto debt
  • Mortgage debt
  • Medical debt
  • Tax debt

This is important because some types of debt will open new doors for your debt repayment strategy. For example, you may be able to negotiate medical debt. With mortgage and auto debt, you could consider refinancing. If you have credit card debt across multiple accounts, you could consolidate.

If you’re not sure which debt to pay off first, consider such things as the annual percentage rate (APR). A loan’s APR is a measure of your borrowing cost over a year and takes the interest rate plus fees into account. Consider each debt’s outstanding balance, as well. In general, paying off the debt with the highest APR is your best bet for saving money, especially if you’re locked into your terms and can’t refinance for better terms.

7 ways to get out of debt

1. Debt avalanche: Pay off your highest-interest debt first

The debt avalanche method involves paying off your debt with the highest interest rate first, and working your way down from there. For example, you might consider paying off debt in this order:

  • 25% APR store credit card
  • 22% APR rewards credit card
  • 7% APR auto loan
  • 6% APR student loans
  • 5% APR mortgage

This way, you’re paying less in interest charges over time. In the meantime, you’ll continue making minimum payments on your other debts — you’ll just be allocating extra cash toward your priority debt.

2. Debt snowball: Pay off your smallest balance first

Tackle your debt in baby steps using the debt snowball method. You’ll target your debt with the lowest balance first while making the minimum payment on your other debts. Once your low-balance debt is repaid, you’ll move onto the next debt.

This repayment method helps you cut down the number of debts you owe and gives you small wins to keep you motivated on your repayment journey. Using the same example above, try the exercise with debt amounts:

  • $1,000 rewards credit card debt
  • $1,500 store credit card debt
  • $10,000 auto loan debt
  • $35,000 student loan debt
  • $150,000 mortgage debt

Compared to the above example, you’ll notice that this list didn’t change much. That’s because low-interest debts like car payments and a mortgage are paid over a longer period of time than credit cards, which would ideally be paid off monthly.

3. Build a budget to pay off debt

It’s easy to lose control of debt when you’re not tracking your spending. Budgeting is a big part of staying out of debt, but it can also help you pay off debt faster.

Creating a budget gives you a clear idea of how you spend and save your money. Particularly if you have excess credit card debt, budgeting can give you valuable insight into where your income goes each month. Use a budgeting spreadsheet like the one below to track your spending for a month and see where you can allocate more income toward repaying debt:

In addition to a manual budgeting spreadsheet, you can also incorporate one of these budgeting strategies:

  • 50/30/20 budget: Split your income into three categories: 50% goes toward needs, 30% goes toward “wants” and 20% goes toward savings and debt repayment.
  • Zero-based budget: At the end of the month, your income minus your expenses should equal zero. This helps you account for every dollar earned, including debt repayment.
  • Envelope budget: Categorize your spending into virtual “envelopes,” such as food, utilities and housing. Allocate your budget at the beginning of the month to cut down on superfluous spending.
  • Minimalist lifestyle: Cut regular but unnecessary expenses, such as coffee shops and dining out, to maximize savings. Use any remaining income to dedicate to debt repayment.
Tip: Utilize an online debt payoff calculator to determine how much you should allocate toward your debt in order to pay it off within a certain time frame. This gives you a clearer image of how much you’ll pay every month, and how much you’ll pay in interest in the long run. You can customize your strategy to pay off debt based on how much you can put aside each month.

4. Dedicate unexpected windfalls to your debt

When you’re given an unanticipated sum of money, it’s easy to count the ways to spend it: Take a vacation or buy that new designer item you’ve been wanting. But your first instinct should be to use that windfall of money to pay down debt.

Don’t think of a money windfall as “extra money” that you can use for discretionary purposes. Use an inheritance, tax refund or work bonus to cut down on your debt and save yourself money on interest in the long run.

5. Meet with a credit counselor to form a repayment plan

Credit

Nonprofit credit counseling organizations offer low-cost or free debt counseling. A certified credit counselor will:

  • Offer money and debt advice
  • Help you set up a budget
  • Give you educational materials on money management

Depending on your circumstances, a counselor may set you up on a debt management plan, which sets a clear timeline for your debt repayment. Debt management plans come at a cost, typically a monthly fee.

You can find a certified credit counselor by searching the U.S. Department of Justice website.

6. Negotiate debt settlement with your creditors

When unsecured debt becomes too much to handle and you’re delinquent on payments, you may consider negotiating debt settlement with your creditors or a debt collector. Your creditor, like your credit card company, may agree to set you up on a payment plan, reduce your monthly payments or settle your debt for less than what’s owed.

Follow these tips for settling your debt:

  • Take notes. Write down the name of the person you spoke with, when you called and what they said. Compile all of this information in a follow-up email.
  • Get it in writing. Before you make any payments, get your proposed repayment or debt settlement plan in writing.
  • Be honest. Don’t commit to a debt repayment plan if you can’t keep up with the monthly payments. Explain your financial situation to the creditor.
  • Check the statute of limitations. If your debt is time-barred, you can’t be sued over it. However, you still owe the debt and it will show up on your credit report.

7. Consolidate debt with a personal loan or balance transfer credit card

Debt consolidation can help you repay your dues at a lower interest rate, saving you money over time. This repayment method also allows you combine multiple debts into one, allowing you to make just one monthly payment instead of multiple payments.

Credit cards and personal loans are popular ways of consolidating debt. However, both of these debt repayment options may be out of reach for consumers with subprime credit. You’ll have a hard time securing a good rate on a personal loan with bad credit, and you’ll find it difficult to qualify for a balance-transfer credit card without a good credit score.

If debt consolidation seems like the right money move for you, compare your options below.

Debt consolidation: Personal loans vs. Balance transfers
Personal loansBalance-transfer cards
How it worksRepay multiple types of debt by opening a personal loan.Transfer the balance of one or multiple credit cards into a new credit card with better terms.
Credit requiredVaries by lenderVery good
Benefits Fixed APR and monthly payments

May offer lower APRs than your current debts

Consolidate many types of debt

May be able to pay off debt at 0% APR

Get all your credit card statements in one place

Risks Subprime borrowers may not qualify

May be subject to origination fees and prepayment penalties

APRs vary widely depending on credit score

Any remaining balance will be charged interest when the 0% APR period expires

Can only be used to consolidate credit card debt

Not all borrowers will qualify

Best for…Borrowers with good credit who have multiple types of debt.Borrowers with good to excellent credit who can pay off the debt within the intro APR period.

Once you’re debt-free: How to stay out of debt

Becoming debt-free is a difficult task, so it’s important to build better habits going forward so you don’t find yourself in the same situation again. Stay out of debt by monitoring your budget, building your savings and working on increasing your income. Here’s how:

Build your emergency fund

It’s important that you don’t sacrifice your emergency savings for debt repayment. You should always be saving at least some money in your emergency fund. That way, when you’re hit with a big, unexpected expense, you don’t need to resort to taking out debt again.

Many professionals advise that you have between three and six months worth of expenses saved up in case an emergency occurs. If that seems like a lot, start small; make your emergency fund by saving up one week’s worth of expenses, then one month, and build up from there.

Find a way to increase your income

Paying off debt on a low income is difficult, but staying out of debt when you don’t have a lot of extra cash is even harder. You don’t have to work your body to the bone to find creative ways to pay off debt.

  • Ask for a raise. It’s common to ask for a raise, so don’t be afraid to ask. Research the average income for your position online, and use that as leverage. Be prepared to advocate for yourself and your accomplishments in your role.
  • Take a certification course. See if your company will pay for the course, and they may increase your income once you receive your new credentials.
  • Start a side gig. If you have a car, you could consider joining a rideshare company. You could also rent out your home as a vacation rental or participate in paid surveys.
  • Sell unused items. Bring your old clothes and accessories to a consignment shop to make some quick money. You can also sell home goods, electronics and other clutter on online marketplaces like Nextdoor, Craisglist or Facebook Marketplace.

Utilize a budgeting app

Creating a budget can be hard work, but it’s worth the effort when you’re paying off debt. Even when you’ve repaid all your debt, it’s important to keep budgeting so you don’t slip into old money habits.

If you’re having trouble keeping up with a budget in the long term, you should at least download a budget app for your smartphone or on your computer. Budgeting apps can link with your bank accounts to track your spending automatically, so all you have to do is log on to see where your money is going.

Monitor and build your credit score

The credit score system isn’t perfect, but it’s one measure of your overall financial wellness. Plus, lenders and other financial institutions rely on your credit score to determine if you’re a good candidate for a loan or credit card.

You can request a full copy of your credit report from all three credit bureaus on www.annualcreditreport.com. Doing so won’t affect your credit, and it can give you a better picture of your finances, including:

  • Who you owe money to
  • How much money you owe
  • Your payment history

You can also check and monitor your credit score for free on the My LendingTree app.

One of the best financial habits you can practice is to check your credit reports every year. Because of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), every consumer can get a free annual credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus. Consumers can take advantage of this opportunity to check for errors and identity theft. Sadly, only one in three consumers takes advantage of this opportunity.[1]

The three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) created a website where you can order all of your credit reports in one place. There is also a toll-free number and mailing address you can use if you prefer to get your reports by mail. This is free on an annual basis—in normal circumstances, you can get your report from each bureau once every twelve months. During the pandemic, the credit bureaus are offering credit reports weekly through April 2022.

Important Update: Bureaus Offer Free Weekly Reports Through April 2022

In light of the unprecedented financial crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the credit bureaus have expanded free credit report access. You can now download your credit report from each bureau once per week through annualcreditreport.com.[2]

We recommend taking advantage of these free weekly reports to check your credit often during this crisis, so you can avoid mistakes.

Where to go to order your free yearly credit reports

  1. Download your reports securely online – https://www.annualcreditreport.com/
  2. Request a mailed copy by phone – 877-322-8228
  3. Request your reports by mail – Fill and print out the Annual Credit Report Request Form
GetPDF

After you complete the form, mail it to:

Annual Credit Report Request Service
P.O. Box 105281
Atlanta, GA 30348

Requesting your credit reports if you are visually impaired

If you are visually impaired, you can use the TDD (Telecommunications Device for the Deaf) service by calling 711 and ask the Relay Operator to go to 1-800-821-7232. You will need to validate your information by answering some personally identifying security questions and certify that you are visually impaired according to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

How to download your free credit reports through annualcreditreport.com

Money

If this is your first time getting your credit reports, don’t stress. It’s usually a fairly easy process. But there can be parts of the process that trip people up. This guide will help you get through the process smoothly.

Step: 1 – Go to annualcreditreport.com

Start by going to annualcreditreport.com. The website is secure, which is important given that your reports contain sensitive personal information and credit info. So, you also want to make sure that the location you’re going online in is secure. Try to download your reports at home or on a secure private network. Don’t go to this site while you’re on free wifi or a public network like an office.

Step: 2 – Request your free credit reports

Now that you are on the homepage look for a red button that says “Request your free credit reports.” Click that button to get to the secure portal where you will download your reports.

Step: 3 – Enter in your personal information

Next, you will enter some personal information about yourself, including your legal name, birthday, Social Security number, address, and previous address if you’ve moved in the past two years.

Once you’ve entered all your information, hit the “next” button to proceed.

Step: 4 – Choose which reports you want, or you can choose all of them

On the next page, you will choose which reports you want to download. There are three national credit bureaus in the U.S. and you can use this website to download reports from each of them. You click the box next to the name(s) of each credit bureau report that you want. A checkmark will appear next to each report you select.

If this is your first time reviewing your credit reports, it’s a good idea to download all three. The credit bureaus do not communicate with each other and different lenders and creditors may not report to all of them. So, you want to see what each report says.

By contrast, if you review your reports regularly, you may just want to download one every few months. This will allow you to follow Debt.com’s year-round credit repair plan and cut down on the time you need to review your reports since you can review them each separately.

Once you’ve selected the reports you want, click the “Next” button.

Step: 5 – Verify your identity with the credit bureau

Once you click the next button, the portal will take you to the website of the first credit bureau you selected. Each credit bureau will ask you to verify your identity based on the information contained in your credit report.

This is the step where people can get tripped up. You’ll be asked personally-identifying security questions to verify your identity, such as:

  • The name of a lender or creditor that you have a loan or credit card with
  • The monthly payment on a loan you have
  • The date you opened an account
  • A previous address that you had

The questions are multiple-choice and every question has an option for “none of the above/does not apply.” This is a valid answer. If none of the choices offered seem accurate, then the answer can be none of the above.

The reason that this information often trips people up is because you may not know the exact names of your lenders, especially if the account is several years old. It can be helpful to have account information on hand, such as statements, so you can confirm the information as you go.

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If you are correct with your answers, you will be able to access the credit report. If you don’t answer the questions correctly, you’ll be shown a page that will give you contact information, including a phone number and an address. This will allow you to verify your information over the phone so you can still get your reports.

Step: 6 – Review your report or print/download

Once your credit report is open, you can review it directly on the website portal. Or you should see a button that says “print your report” towards the top of the screen. You can click on that button and print out your report on your printer (note: it’s a lot of pages), or save it as a PDF document by selecting print to PDF and then saving it to your computer or tablet.

If you decide to save it, make sure you have a secure computer. And even so, it’s a good idea to download your report and then delete the file permanently once you have reviewed it.

Once you’ve finished up reviewing or getting this report to review later, go back to the top of the screen and click the button to get back to the annualcreditreport.com portal to get your next report.

Step: 7 – Repeat for each credit report

If you selected more than one credit bureau in Step 4, then you will repeat Steps 5 and 6 to verify your identity with each bureau and get your report.

What to look for when you review your free credit report

As you review the report from each credit bureau, there are four things you want to look for:

Is your personal information correct?

If there are errors here, you can change and update your information. One big error that can cause issues are aliases that you don’t use. Aliases are variations of your name that you may have used to open an account. For example, you may have used your middle initial to open an account, which would generate an alias if you don’t typically do that.

The issue is with aliases that you’ve never used. This could mean that you’ve been confused with another consumer and could have collection accounts that are not yours.

Is any negative information listed accurate?

Each report will have a special section that lists items that are considered “negative” in your credit report. These are things like missed payments, charge-offs, and collection accounts. Make sure all of this information is accurate. Otherwise, you have negative items that are hurting your score.

If a negative item is legitimate, note how old it is. Negative information can only stay in your report a set time, so you want to make sure these items are not outdated.

Is your account information correct?

The biggest section of your credit report will detail all of the information about each account. You want to make sure that the payment history is accurate and the account status is up-to-date. Mistakes in this section of your credit report can have a significant negative impact on your credit score.

It’s important to note that each account will have an account balance. This may not be on the dot accurate, depending on when that creditor reports information to the credit bureaus. But it should be close. If it’s not, then you may want to contact the creditor or check your account information online to ensure the balance is accurate.

Do you recognize all of your accounts?

If you see accounts that you didn’t open or collection accounts that you don’t believe are yours, it may be a sign of identity theft. Someone could have your Social Security number and be opening accounts in your name. You need to report it immediately.

Free credit report FAQ

Q:Don’t other websites offer free credit reports?

A: There are a lot of websites that promise free credit reports, but some are fraudulent, and others are just trying to get you to sign up for a paid credit monitoring service. These websites will ask for credit card information to access your reports even though they say the report is free. If you don’t cancel the service before the end of the trial period, you are automatically signed up for their service.

There is only ONE website that offers truly free credit reports with no strings attached. annualcreditreport.com is the only official site to get your free yearly credit reports. You will be asked questions to verify your identity, but you will not be asked for any credit card information to access your reports.

Q:Is your credit score included with your free credit report?

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A: Unfortunately, you won’t get your credit score for free through annualcreditreport.com. Be aware that while you are downloading your free credit reports through the website, the credit bureaus will offer your credit score. But you will need to pay for them. They are not part of the free reports guaranteed by the FCRA.

Q:Why do you need to get a copy of your credit report?

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A: About one-third of all credit reports have errors, and about one in twenty people are victims of identity theft.[3] Everyone needs to know if their credit reports are correct. Errors on your credit report can negatively affect your credit rating, possibly giving you bad credit. Additionally, by viewing your credit report, you can spot identity theft and report it right away.
Sources

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[1] https://www.lendingtree.com/credit-cards/study/americans-check-credit-reports/
[2] https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/blog/2020/05/credit-reports-are-now-free-every-week/
[3] https://www.experian.com/blogs/ask-experian/how-common-is-identity-theft/

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Article last modified on October 15, 2021. Published by Debt.com, LLC