When Beverly Harzog was in her 20s she worked in accounting, but struggled to keep her own finances in check. “I felt like I needed to dress a certain way. I needed power suits and power accessories – power everything,” she recalls. She bought what she felt she needed on a credit card with vague plans to pay it off later. Soon, she found herself with $20,000 in debt.
“I was naive about credit and where all this could lead. I didn’t read the fine print; I just got cards and spent,” she says. That all changed when she made a commitment to herself to get out of debt. She knew she had to do it her own way, instead of following the standard advice of cutting back on frivolities like lattes. “I knew I wasn’t giving up my coffee,” she says, or other small indulgences that gave her pleasure. She was single and young, after all, and she wanted to enjoy life.
The custom strategies she devised to pay off her debt are the subject of her new book, “The Debt Escape Plan: How to Free Yourself From Credit Card Balances, Boost Your Credit Score, and Live Debt-Free.” Harzog, who is also the consumer credit advisor for LendingTree, figured out ways to dramatically cut back on her spending without feeling like she was sacrificing too much of her lifestyle by switching to a cheaper gym, frequenting happy hours with big discounts and brewing French press coffee at home.
Many Americans are in the same boat Harzog found herself in before she made those changes. A 2014 NerdWallet analysis of Federal Reserve and other government data found that the average household has $7,283 in credit card debt. A survey of 1,194 Americans released this month by NerdWallet also found that among the 56 percent of respondents who say they carry credit card debt, the average amount is $6,134. Amounts varied by the four cities surveyed, with New Yorkers carrying the highest amount of debt with an average of $8,266.
“There are a lot of people who use credit cards as an emergency fund, so it’s possible that people are experiencing even small emergencies from time to time, and over time those small things add up. Interest can also add to the bill,” says Lindsay Konsko, credit card analyst for NerdWallet and U.S. News contributor to the My Money blog.
Another April survey of 1,107 people with credit card debt conducted by National Debt Relief, a debt negotiation service, found that women are more likely to carry credit card debt than men. Among women ages 18 to 24 in the survey, 63 percent had credit card debt, compared to just 36 percent of men. Women between ages 55 to 64 also had twice as much debt as their male peers – 66 percent versus 33 percent.
“In households, maybe women do more of the shopping, and hence they do more of the spending,” says Chris Rojas, vice president of client services for National Debt Relief. He adds that while the gender differences are hard to fully understand, one takeaway is clear: Both men and women can benefit from more financial education and guidance when it comes to debt control.
If you want to follow Harzog’s path to a debt-free existence, then consider these strategies:
Make specific goals.
Harzog recommends not only having financial goals to help motivate you, but to be specific and mindful about them. Don’t just think, “I want to go to Europe,” but pick out the specific cities and sites you want to visit. She suggests keeping photos of your dreams for the future, like taking a cruise, nearby so you remember why you are working so hard to save. She also says it can be helpful to come up with goals for each decade of life to keep you moving forward and feeling committed to your new spending plan. “You will feel a sense of adrenaline as the debt goes down and your goals are on the horizon. The hardest part is just getting started,” she says.
Downsize but don’t eliminate.
Harzog knew a lifestyle of caffeine-free sacrifice was not for her. “I knew I would be keeping my coffee,” she says. So she makes it herself, grinding her own beans and brewing it in a French press. She also traded in her high-end gym for a lower budget one that still lets her exercise regularly. When she made plans to go out with friends, she found happy hour “buy one, get two” deals. She also ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner. Someone else might want to keep their every-other-week manicures, she adds. “You can be nice to yourself while you go through this,” she says.
Know your spending triggers.
For some people, it might be a bad day at the office; for others, it could be checking Facebook and seeing a friend in a fancy new outfit or on vacation. “Today, it’s about keeping up with the virtual Joneses,” she says, adding that much of what you see online could be exaggerated. If you know that your Facebook scrolling habits might lead to impulse buys, then try to cut back on the number of times you check your news feed.
Get some help.
You might find that a free online budgeting service like Mint.com helps you get organized. Harzog also recommends the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, which offers counseling sessions by phone that help review your budget and make a plan for paying off debt. Sessions are typically provided at no or low cost. “If you feel like you’re drowning, it can give you direction,” Harzog says.
Consolidate the debt.
If you have a decent credit score, then Konsko suggests trying to qualify for 0 percent balance transfer and moving the credit card debt onto that card to reduce the cost of interest and make it easier to pay off. Just be sure to pay off the balance before the 0 percent rate expires, she adds. Sometimes, she says, it can also be cheaper to take out a personal loan at a low interest rate and move the credit card debt there.
Make more money.
If you can take on more work – picking up overtime hours, freelancing or starting a side gig – then you can put that extra cash toward paying off debt. “Reducing spending and increasing income is a powerful combination to pay off debt,” Konsko says.
The good news is that once you pay off your debt, you can start enjoying those goals you set for yourself. Harzog has replaced her peanut butter and jelly dinners with seafood – but she still makes her own coffee.