Have Debt? Here's How to Get Out of It

Debt can paralyze your finances and leave you feeling trapped, but you can find a way out.

In this installment of Industry Focus: Financials, Motley Fool analyst Gaby Lapera talks with Dan Caplinger, The Fool's director of investment planning, about simple things you can do to identify debt problems and find areas to help you get out of debt. As Gaby and Dan discuss, making a budget and knowing the ins and outs of credit card fees can be a good starting point to dig your way out of your debt burden.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This podcast was recorded on Jan. 30, 2017.

Gaby Lapera: Maybe you're already living paycheck to paycheck and you have money on your credit card, and some people just don't pay their credit cards off at all, which is a really bad move. Not paying your credit card is never going to get you out of debt.

Dan Caplinger: Yeah, it's a triple hit. Not only do you not get out of debt, but you pay the interest on what you didn't pay, you'll pay a late fee or non-payment fee to the credit card, and, as we'll talk about later on, you rip your credit score to shreds, too. So, it's a whole bunch of bad things that come up. It always makes sense, at the very least, to get that minimum payment in to avoid all those excess charges.

Lapera: Yeah, absolutely. You would be surprised by how common this is. Every year, people write stories about credit card debt, and there's always at least one person who is interviewed in these stories who is like, "I didn't realize I needed to pay the money back. I thought it was just money they were giving me." Which is mind-blowing. I don't know how they got to that point, but I have a feeling it has something to do with some bankers who were not very honest with the terms of the agreement. But, it happens, for sure. But, you mentioned something else, which is only making the minimum payment. It's better than doing nothing, but it's not great, either.

Caplinger: No. Even when you just make the minimum payment -- the way those minimum payments are set up, it doesn't really pay that much more than what your interest charge is. If you're making a $25 minimum payment, you might have $20 of that going just to pay that 15.9% you were talking about earlier. That only lets you cut that balance by $5 a month. The way the math works out, it can take years, like 10 years or more, to get to the point where your minimum balance has actually paid off that amount. And that's assuming you don't go out and run up more charges in the interim.

Lapera: Yeah, absolutely. Just to back up a little bit, credit card companies or your bank or whoever it is that owns your debt tells you how much you have to pay at a minimum every month in order not to get a late fee. If you pay less than that, they'll smack you with some sort of fee. And that's what your minimum payment is. So, you're making your minimum payments, and here's another mistake that people make, they add on a lot of unnecessary debt. Dan, you were telling me before the show started that households before the holidays, their credit card was around $16,000, which is that national figure we were talking about. After holidays, the credit card debt increased by $1,073. That's a lot of money.

Caplinger: On average. When you have these holiday expenses that come up, whether it's traveling to family or buying presents or doing shopping, whatever it is, it's tempting. You have those expenses and you have to cover them. A lot of people don't have the income to cover that at that point. So it's tempting to just add that to the total and figure, "OK, after the holidays are done, I'll resolve to get that paid down." But, yeah, a lot of people get a holiday bump in terms of how much debt they have on their credit card.

Lapera: Yeah. And as terrible as it is to not really celebrate whatever holiday you have going on, it's not really 100% a necessary expense for you to buy presents for people or to travel that year. It's a not-safe-for-work word, it's terrible, it's no fun, but it's a place where you can cut expenses.

Caplinger: It is. The other thing is that you can also pre-plan for it. You know what your holiday plans are going to be. If you set aside a certain amount of money from your check every two weeks, or every month, starting in January or February, and you accumulate that over the course of the year, then you'll have a nest egg at the end of the year and you don't have to dip into your credit card, you don't have to add to your credit card debt in order to do it. With an anticipated expense like holiday stuff, that's more than a reasonable thing to do, because you can get a sense of it. It's not like there's going to be an emergency where you didn't know the holidays were going to be coming up. You know exactly what your expectations are, and you can plan for them.

Lapera: That's a really good point. Also, if you're like me, I really hate buying presents for people, so whenever I see a present that will work for someone for the holidays, I buy it even if it's the middle of June and I stash away. That way, I don't have to worry about it in December. That will also help you pre-plan expenses, hopefully. Plus, it might make your life easier come December. Holiday tips with the Industry Focus gang! So, another way that people can get in trouble with their debt is not understanding the terms of their debt. This is something I've seen that's common among people my age, weirdly enough -- they don't understand what the interest payment is on their credit cards.

Caplinger: Yeah. It's sometimes labeled the finance charge, sometimes it's labeled something else. It's not always really clear. Plus, the rates tend to change a lot. Different credit card companies are better or worse in showing you, "This was your average balance, this is the current interest rate, do the math, this is how much interest your account accumulated during this particular month, this is your minimum payment, so this, after you make your minimum payment, if that's what you do, here's what the balance is going to be left." Some card companies have actually gotten better about doing this in response to calls from consumer advocates to do something to help solve this problem. But not all of the banks are on board with it yet. So sometimes you have to do your own homework to know what those terms are. In addition, you have a whole span of fees, whether it's late fees, over account limit fees, and a whole host of other things that you can end up having to pay for just by making simple mistakes, avoidable mistakes, if you just knew those traps were out there, you could easily avoid them. But a lot of people don't even know that they're out there.

Lapera: Yeah, it's all about reading the fine print, especially if you get your credit card from a bank, which I think most people do. A lot of them have all sorts of fees, and they're not technically hidden, they're in the fine print, or maybe the agent told you while you were applying for the credit card. For example, you have to keep a certain balance in your savings account, and you have to keep a debit card open as well so that they don't charge you for any of the accounts, or something like that. It's about reading the fine print.

Caplinger: It's all there, somewhere. It's just that most people don't go to the trouble of reading that big long book, or the piece of paper that you need a magnifying glass to read to see all the things you might end up having to pay for.

Lapera: I read that, on average, the length of the average credit card agreement is about 44 pages. (laughs) That's a lot of pages!

Caplinger: A little light reading for you.

Lapera: "Light" in the fact that they make the print so tiny that it doesn't seem very long.

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