That dreaded time has come at last for many big spenders. As credit card bills roll in this month, the impact of swiping those credit cards to purchase holiday gifts will slowly begin to sink in.
Shoppers who relied on plastic to pay for holiday gifts spent an average of $896 last holiday season, according to a Consumer Reports poll of over 1,000 consumers. While 40 percent said they planned to pay off the debt by the end of January, about 19 percent said they may not be in the clear until March or later. As of October 2009, the national average credit card borrower debt was $5,612, according to TransUnion, one of the three consumer credit reporting agencies in the United States. With the new year in full swing, there are many ways to get out of the red and into the black. Here are just a few tips from financial experts.
1. Pay off high-interest-rate credit cards
If you have several credit cards, pay off those that have the highest interest rates first, says Loren Bendele, CEO of Savings.com. "Short-term pain for long-term gain," he says. He encourages consumers to pay the full balance, or as much as possible, for these high-interest credit cards and then pay at least the minimum balance for the remaining credit cards.
2. Contact your credit card companies
Bendele also recommends asking all of your credit card companies whether they can offer you a lower interest rate or a lower monthly payment. "Tell them you want to reduce your interest rate or else you will move to another credit card company," he says. "Start aggressive. Don't cancel the card just yet, but see what they can do."
3. Make the minimum monthly payments
If you can't afford to pay off the bill in full each month, try to pay at least the minimum required for each credit card, recommends Steven Katz, the director of consumer brands at TransUnion. This will reflect well on your credit report.
4. Pay bills on time
Pay each of your credit card bills on time to avoid late fees. Every time you miss a payment, it affects your credit report, Katz says. "If you have a late payment, that will stay on your credit report for seven years," he says. "While the impact of this late payment will diminish over time, it will still be there for seven years, so it is critical that you don't let that happen." One way to ensure you make your monthly payments on time is to make them automated, he says.
5. Check your credit report
Go to AnnualCreditReport.com to get a free credit report once every 12 months from the three consumer credit reporting agencies—TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax. Additionally, all three of these agencies offer similar subscriptions for around $14.99 per month that allow consumers to access their credit reports at any time throughout the year. "Look at your credit report frequently in order to make sure it is an accurate and complete reflection of your credit history," Katz says. This frequency will also allow you to detect if you have become a victim of fraud, he says.
6. Keep your credit utilization low
Try to keep the utilization of your available credit under 35 percent of the credit limit, Katz says. For example, if your credit limit is $10,000, try to spend less than $3,500 each month in credit on that card, he says. "When a lender is looking at you to provide credit, they will pull a credit report from all three credit agencies and choose a scoring model. Generally speaking, they will reward a utilization that is less than 35 percent," Katz says. If you are spending over that amount, you should work yourself down to pay off as much as possible.
7. Know your "VantageScore"
In 2006, all three credit agencies helped to create the VantageScore, which is a very consistent credit score across all credit agencies, says Susan Henson, a spokesperson for Experian. The VantageScore provides a letter grade along with a number score to help consumers better understand their credit score and know what to expect when they go to a lender, Katz says. However, be aware that some creditors may not report to all of the credit agencies, as it is voluntary, so the VantageScore could vary slightly from one credit agency to another, Henson says. TransUnion and Experian offer the VantageScore on their websites.