By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia
The holiday decorations are all packed away, the extra pounds are packed on and the bills will soon stuff your mailbox. If you overspent on credit cards this season, now's the time to buckle down and pay off those high balances.
University of Georgia financial experts say the key to quickly paying down credit card balances lies in each card's annual percentage rate.
First, make a list
The first step is to make a detailed list of your debts, says Michael Rupured, a Cooperative Extension financial management specialist with the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences.
"Make a list of all your debts, excluding your mortgage," Rupured said. "For each debt, write down how much you owe, the annual percentage rate and the minimum payment."
Using this list, determine the total you owe, how much you pay in interest each month and how much goes toward debt payments.
"Now, plan to make the minimum payment on all but one of your debts," Rupured said. "Then put any extra dollars you can come up with toward that one debt you excluded."
Pay highest APR first
To save the most on interest, the debt with the highest APR should be the one you pay more on. Continue applying the same amount to debt payments every month until all the debts are paid.
"As you pay one credit card or other debt off, add that payment amount to another debt payment," Rupured said. "So, if you have seven debts with a combined monthly minimum payment of $725, continue to pay $725 until you have repaid all seven debts."
Rupured says increasing your monthly debt payment by as little as $25 can knock several months off your debt repayment time. He also suggests adding any unexpected income to your debt repayment as well.
"Put tax refunds, bonuses, gifts or prizes toward your debts to pay them off even faster," he said.
Seek help if you need it
If you're behind on your bills or having a hard time making even the minimum payments, Rupured suggests seeking help. Nonprofit credit counseling agencies can help you develop a debt repayment plan that fits your budget.
To find an agency, check under "credit counselors" in the yellow pages of your phone book.
If most of your debt is on credit cards, Rupured says the true key to getting out of debt is to stop using them. "If you must," he said, "keep one card for travel and emergencies. But leave the card at home in a safe place until you need it."
Cut up all your other credit cards, he said. And close out the accounts so you won't be tempted to ask the company for a new card.
Use UGA worksheet
Your local UGA Extension office can be a source of financial guidance, too. Ask your county Extension agent about the free PowerPay program. Complete a Powerpay information form and get several printouts showing a repayment schedule, how long it will take to pay off your debts and how much you'll save in interest.
You can access the program (www.fcs.uga.edu/ext/econ/creditwksht.php) on the Internet, too.
"With fewer bills to pay, you'll have more money, write fewer checks and even save on postage," Rupured said. "Taking control of your finances makes sense and cents."
(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)