Published February 05, 2013
If you're suffering from a case of post-holiday credit card bill guilt, you're not alone. While making good on your resolution to pay down your debt is a terrific goal, you want to make sure you do so in a way that actually improves your overall financial status. In other words, think twice before resorting to these sketchy debt pay-off plans:
1. Dipping into retirement savings
There are two ways people tap retirement funds that don't serve their long-term interests, explains Kelley Long, CPA and member of the National CPA Financial Literacy Commission. "The first way is through a 401(k) loan," she says. "You're paying yourself interest instead of the card company, which seems like a great idea, but as long as your loan is there, you're losing out on the compound interest you could be earning." The other unwise decision is to withdraw from your individual retirement account. The 10% penalty alone can end up costing more than any credit card interest.
"Taking money out of a tax-advantaged retirement plan will create a taxable event, plus loss of principle, plus lost opportunity of growth because those dollars taken out will never be there again to grow," says Larry Rosenthal, an ING retirement coach and independent financial adviser.
Better move: Take money out of savings
"Ideally, people want to have three to six months' worth of expenses put away for an emergency," says Kasey C. Gahler, an Austin, Texas-based certified financial planner. But with interest rates on savings accounts so low and credit card rates high, it makes financial sense to use a portion of your savings toward high-interest debt, as long as you commit to replenishing what you've taken out as soon as possible.
2. Using a home equity line of credit
Low mortgage rates can make borrowing against your house seem attractive -- especially since the loan interest is tax deductible. But using this tactic can be tricky. "You're paying for debt with different debt," says Gahler. "The issue is not necessarily what the interest rate is, but that you're playing a shell game."
Better move: Increase your earnings
Instead of moving your debt around, make a concerted effort to pay it off faster. "Picking up a side job to make some extra money or volunteering for some overtime can help you pay those expenses off as quickly as possible," says Gahler.
3. Taking out a payday loan
Payday loans are essentially very high-interest loans that provide an advance on your paycheck. "After you pay the fees and interest rate, you'll pay more than you would have if you just continued to pay the card off," says Long.
Better move: Make adjustments to your paycheck
There are ways to alter how much income tax you pay on a short-term basis. "You can increase your take-home pay by increasing your allowances temporarily -- as long as you usually get a tax refund," says Paula Langguth Ryan, author of "Bounce Back from Bankruptcy." "This will give you more disposable income to put toward paying off those holiday bills quickly." In a similar vein, if you expect a tax refund, you could file your return early so you can get the money to pay off bills faster.
4. Paying off your cards without a plan
If you owe a balance on more than one account, choosing an amount each month and divvying it up equally among accounts is not advisable, says Gahler. The same goes for paying just the minimum amount due on your accounts. "It will be hard to get out of debt for the long term that way," he says.
Better move: Focus on the highest interest rate card first
"Prioritize based on interest rate," says Gahler. "If you've got multiple lines of credit, focus on the highest interest rate first." The idea is to pay as much as you can afford on that account, while maintaining on-time minimum payments on the others. The exception: "If you have a small balance that is easy to just pay off, sometimes even if the rate is lower, it's a nice little victory to say, 'I've got that card paid off,'" Gahler says.
5. Transferring balances
Using balance transfers can be an efficient way to pay off a debt using a lower or zero interest rate card. The danger lies in the limited grace period. People often end up using the new card for additional spending without paying off the original balance before the introductory period expires. "Not only do they transfer the old balance, but they accrue even more," says Long. And, adds Gahler, with every new account you open, your credit score will take a temporary hit.
Better move: Use transfers sparingly, and crunch the numbers first
"Calculate exactly what it would cost you each month to pay off the zero interest debt before the zero interest period is up," says author Ryan. "Then pay that amount each month so you get the use of the credit for free and get the debt paid off in full." Plus, most balance transfer cards charge a 2% to 3% fee, so if you're transferring a hefty balance, you'll be adding more to your debt load.
6. Borrowing from family
Relatives are preferable to some other lenders, but there are still caveats. Even if a family member offers you a loan without interest, it can make for awkward encounters if you don't pay it back in a timely manner.
Better move: Save for the holidays all year long
"The holidays are going to come around again, so the best way to plan ahead in your budget is to set aside some money each month to be able to pay for holiday shopping," says Gahler. That way, by the time next December and January roll around, you have funds to pay for your purchases.
Ultimately, there isn't a magic wand for getting out of debt, says Long. It's really a matter of buckling down. "Stop using credit, pick a fixed amount you can afford, and pay that amount or more every month until the debt is gone."