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Credit card usage can be an important part of your day-to-day personal finances. But, even if you make charges and payments responsibly, unexpected expenses can occur and inflate your balance to a level with which you may not be comfortable. Maybe your car broke down and you used a credit card to pay for the pricey repair. Maybe you had a period of job insecurity and your income couldn’t cover your monthly bills. Whatever the explanation, you find yourself carrying a balance, so what should you do?

First, don’t stress. Instead, take a breath, consider your options, and commit to a plan to begin paying off credit card balances.

Look at The Big Picture

The first step is looking the big picture of your finances, beginning with your credit score. This is important because carrying high credit card debt can negatively impact your score. Request a free credit score (which you can obtain without impacting your credit, through Discover, for example) so you can see where your credit stands and if your credit is healthy.

Reviewing your credit report allows you to confirm that all the balances in your name are truly yours, and there are no errors — like a card that doesn’t belong to you — on your credit report. Errors on your credit report may be costing you money on interest rates or monthly payments.

Once you have this information and cleared up any errors, you can come up with a game plan for tackling your credit card balance(s). You might identify a credit card with a $1,000 limit with a $500 balance, for example. It may be a good idea to focus on paying off this card first, which may help improve your credit score and then provide you with additional options for paying off other credit, such as securing a 0 percent interest balance transfer.

Protect Yourself From Late Payments

Pay your credit card bills on time, even if that means paying the minimum. If you have had late payments in the past, it may be a good idea to set up an auto-pay system, so bills don’t slide through the cracks. Late payments may come with additional fees and could potentially raise your interest rate, meaning you may pay even more than your initial balance. When you have the opportunity, pay more than the minimum so that you can reduce that revolving balance. Then, when your financial situation allows it, pay off that balance.

Assess Your Interest Rates

Evaluate the interest rates of your credit cards because higher rates mean you’re paying more interest on balances. In some cases, it may be possible to call customer service and ask for a lower interest rate, citing past behaviors such as on-time payments or customer loyalty. Once you’ve identified the cards with higher interest rates, you may want to focus on paying off those cards first, then moving to a card with a lower interest rate.

Pay More Than the Minimum Monthly Payment

Even if you can’t pay off the balance in full, it may make sense to pay more than the minimum — even a few dollars — on all cards. This approach can help lower the balance which can reduce the amount of interest you pay your purchases in the long run.

For example, if a credit card has a minimum payment that’s 4 percent of the balance. Let’s say you have a credit card with a $1,000 balance, a $40 monthly minimum and a 20 percent interest rate. If you make no other charges to that card, it will take 33 months to pay off the balance and you’ll pay more than $300 in interest. But if you pay $50 every month — an increase of just $10 — it will take 23 months to pay off the balance, and you’ll pay $226 in interest. In other words: Those $5 or $10 can add up quickly.

Consider a Balance Transfer

If you have good credit, you may want to consider a balance transfer to a credit card with a 0 percent introductory interest rate. In effect, you will transfer the balance you owe, and can focus on paying it down without any added interest. It’s important to keep in mind that some balance transfers have fees, and interest will be charged after the promotional period has passed. If you’re considering a balance transfer, having a solid plan in place for how to pay off your debt is essential: For example, maybe you got a promotion and a raise, you’ve picked up a side hustle, or you’ve decided to forgo that morning latte on the way to work.

Make a Budgeting Plan

In order to pay off your credit cards, you’ll need a source of funds that can help you pay off more than monthly minimums. What drove up your balances? It may have been one costly purchase, or it could have been a pattern of living beyond your means. Knowing the habits or circumstances of how you reached your balances may help you create a plan to reduce spending and maximize your payments — a budget.

For example, if you usually go out to dinner twice a week, cutting back to once a week and putting what you would have spent on a restaurant meal toward your balances may help you pay down debt while still enjoying your life. You might also consider ways to save more money, whether that’s working more hours, moving to a less expensive neighborhood, or taking on a side hustle for extra income.

Give Yourself Credit

Life happens, and owing a balance on credit cards doesn’t necessarily mean you’re irresponsible or bad with money. Coming up with sound strategies and a plan for how to pay off balances can help you reach your financial goals. Looking at your balances, developing a plan and making smart decisions can help put you in a more secure financial position than you may have been in previously. That’s credit — without interest — you can give entirely to yourself.

Originally published August 30, 2017.

Updated May 9, 2019.

Legal Disclaimer: This site is for educational purposes and is not a substitute for professional advice. The material on this site is not intended to provide legal, investment, or financial advice and does not indicate the availability of any Discover product or service. It does not guarantee that Discover offers or endorses a product or service. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, you may wish to consult a qualified professional.