Your Money > Credit & Debt
A simple plan: Banish holiday debt
It doesn't take as much effort as you think.
January 2, 2004: 11:20 AM EST
By Jeanne Sahadi, CNN/Money senior writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) So ... you gave and you gave and you gave. And now, of course, you get to pay and pay and pay.

Such is your lot if you charged your holiday gifts, travel and entertainment and now can't pay off your balances in full.

If you value yourself and your bank account, getting out of this pickle should be a top priority in the new year.

Otherwise, you might become a card-carrying member of the forever indebted. Have a look at this ugly finding: In a random survey of 1,000 consumers across the country in December, Consolidated Credit Counseling Services found 52 percent still had holiday debt leftover from last year.
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Still need convincing? Consider this: Holiday debt isn't like those five pounds you pack on over holiday dinners. You have several months before bikini season to work off the extra weight. But when it comes to your debt, there's no such thing as a big sweater to hide the bulge.

Debt costs you almost from the moment you incur it. There's the accrual of interest on unpaid balances, which is a pricey premium to pay for anything, even if it was on sale or you got frequent flyer miles for buying it. Then there's the annoying fact that you'll have less money to put toward more gratifying financial goals.

So the sooner you can dispense with your debt, the better.

Face facts, then make a plan

Your first step should be to tally the damage and write down exactly how much you owe, suggested Mary Hunt, founder of Cheapskate Monthly. Then post that number on your refrigerator as a friendly reminder you're on a mission.

Next, come up with a pay-down plan.

Using CNN/Money's debt reduction planner, you can play out different scenarios to figure out how long it will take you to pay off your debt if you pay a set amount each month. Or, you can figure out how much you'll need to pay each month if you want to be debt free by a certain date.

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One trick to paying your debt down efficiently is to pay the most money toward your highest rate debt while continuing to make on-time payments worth at least the minimum due on your other bills. Once the priciest debt is paid down, apply the payments you were making on it to your other balances.

And if you have a balance on a card with a low rate that is set to expire soon, make sure that balance is paid off by the expiration date, otherwise you could find yourself being slammed with a much higher rate.

Make it palatable

Hunt recommends setting a deadline for yourself and sticking to it.

If the monthly payment required to meet that deadline seems daunting, break it down so it's palatable.

Say you racked up $2,000 on your credit card, which charges 17 percent interest. If you want to pay it off in 6 months, you'll need to set aside $345 a month.

That may seem like a lot, until you realize it's only $11.50 a day. There are plenty of ways to come up with that kind of cash.

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Brown-bagging your lunch might save you $5 to $7 daily, Hunt suggested. Eating out less often can save you even more.

You also might save a couple of dollars a day by giving up your cable or cell phone for a few months or cutting back on some of your phone services, she said. Or how about those extra features on your land line that you don't use much, such as call forwarding or caller ID?

In fact, any service or item you pay for on a regular basis that cannot rightfully be described as a necessity is a candidate for temporary cost-cutting.

And it sounds silly, but don't discount your change. Throw it into a jar every day and turn it into the bank at the end of the month. After a few months, you easily may find yourself with a few hundred dollars you didn't know you had.

It's all in the attitude

If at any time you start feeling discouraged, remind yourself that "your situation is short-term," Hunt said.

Rather than viewing your credit card payments as a matter of deprivation, consider it "a matter of sacrifice, something you do in the short-term to get something much better in the long-term," she said. "Most of us can endure anything if it's temporary."

There's another sacrifice you might consider making today in favor of tomorrow, said certified financial planner Pat Jennerjohn. Put aside a small bit of cash every week or month that you earmark for your holiday spending next year.

After all, why star in your own version of "Groundhog's Day" next December?  Top of page

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