How Can I Begin Tackling My Debt?

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In an effort to help readers better manage their finances, mental_floss has teamed up with personal finance expert, Chase Slate financial education partner, and award-winning podcast host Farnoosh Torabi to answer your most pressing credit- and money-related Big Questions.

If you’ve got credit card debt, student loans, or car payments, it can be tough to know where to start when it comes to reducing your debt. Luckily, with a few smart steps, you can start taking care of those headaches and put yourself on a firmer financial footing.

First, make a list of all your outstanding bills and loan statements, and be sure to secure the latest copy of your credit report. Include information such as balances, minimum payments, due dates, interest rates, your credit score, and any other relevant information your report might provide. After that, there are two paths forward: Either increase your income (e.g. ask for a raise, take on a part-time job, seek out freelance opportunities) or decrease your spending to help pay off your debts more quickly (e.g. lay out a monthly budget).

Once you’ve secured some extra funds, Torabi recommends paying off the debt with the highest interest rate first. “It’s technically your most expensive debt,” says Torabi. “Once that debt is paid off, continue to pay off remaining debt with the second highest interest rate and so on.”

You may also be able to negotiate some of your loan or credit card rates down. Torabi stresses the importance of research if you try to work with your lender on a lower rate. “Before you give your credit card company or loan issuer a call, do some homework by finding out the interest rates that competing companies are offering new customers,” says Torabi. Be polite, friendly, and don’t be afraid to ask to speak with a supervisor to try to lower your interest rate.

Besides negotiating, another way to try to get a lower interest rate is a balance transfer. By transferring your credit card balance to another credit card, you can take advantage of an initial period of low interest. Make sure to read the fine print and pay off your balance promptly so you actually save money. The caveat? “A balance transfer might lower your credit score at first,” explains Torabi, as an inquiry by a credit bureau can have that effect. (The good news: It’s usually just by a few points.) This could be worth it for the money you’ll save in the long run.

Once you’ve started chipping away at your debts, your overall credit health should gradually improve. According to Torabi, seeing an improvement in your credit score after paying off debt takes time and patience. Your account activity gets reported to credit bureaus each billing cycle, so every 30 to 45 days (or so), you have a chance to improve your credit report. "And as your credit report improves, so will your credit score. Give it at least six months,” says Torabi.