There’s more than one way out of credit card debt

Dear Liz: In your book “Your Credit Score,” you note that one of the best ways to improve your credit score and lighten your credit card load is to get a personal loan with a credit union and pay it off in installments.

I have two high-interest credit card balances that are hovering right near my credit limits (a little over $15,000 total) that comprise the vast majority of my debt. I’d love to get an installment loan to pay them off, but I’ve applied several times and several places for personal loans — including my credit union — and have either been denied or not given a sufficient loan to cover the total amount. I also don’t have $15,000 in cash sitting around in a savings account to secure a loan of that size.

In this situation, what would you recommend? The minimum payments on these two cards are roughly $190 and $160 each, and I’d love to be able to combine them and maybe even save a few bucks too.

Answer: What you seem to be talking about is a secured personal loan, rather than one that’s unsecured. Secured personal loans typically require that you have an equivalent amount in a bank account or certificate of deposit as collateral for the loan. If you have the cash, though, you wouldn’t need the loan — you could use the money to pay off your debt.

Unsecured personal loans don’t have collateral. The bank or credit union is relying on your word that you’ll repay the loan. Not surprisingly, lenders can be pretty picky about whose word they will trust. Few will take a risk on borrowers with poor credit scores — and those maxed-out cards, accompanied by all those loan applications, aren’t helping yours.

For now, give up the idea of getting a loan. Instead, take whatever cash you have to pay down the cards as far as you can. Retain $500 or so as an emergency fund, but put the rest to use in eliminating this high-rate debt.

Next, start cutting expenses so you can free up more money to repay your debt. Do you eat out? Cut back. Pay for TV? Ditch the cable. Take vacations? Stay home for a while. None of these sacrifices has to be more than temporary, as long as you’re willing to stop adding to your debt.

Paying credit card debt is a lot like losing weight. If you don’t make much effort, you won’t get much result. But sending in big payments each month will help you see progress pretty quickly, which can inspire you to keep going.

Once you’ve got the debt paid off, don’t charge more on the cards than you can afford to pay off each month.

Don’t count on plastic to cover big expenses

Dear Liz: I’m 27 and have no consumer debt, a decent salary and a boatload of student loans. I use my credit cards for most of my expenses to earn rewards points and generally pay off my cards each month. I also take advantage of the 0% introductory rate offered by many credit card companies. This grace period gives me a security blanket so that I can spread large expenses such as insurance or car repairs over several months without derailing my saving plans. Can I apply for these offers without wrecking my excellent scores?

Answer: Occasionally applying for a new card won’t affect your scores much. Typically such applications ding your scores by five points or less.

You should be budgeting and saving for large expenses, however, rather than leaning on your cards. (Car repairs, in particular, aren’t really “emergency” costs — if you have a car, you know they’re coming, and calculators like Edmunds.com’s “True Cost to Own” feature can give you a good idea of what they’re likely to be.) Those 0% offers often come with balance transfer fees or other charges that make the deals a lot less attractive than they seem at first glance.

Also, you should be in the habit of always paying your cards in full — always. “Generally” isn’t good enough, since you could easily be enticed into spending beyond your means, especially as you chase rewards points. Rewards cards are a good deal only if you don’t carry a balance. Otherwise, you can pay frighteningly high interest rates that offset any benefit you may earn.

Hoard cash if unemployment looms

Dear Liz: My husband and I have been aggressively paying down our debts and plan to be debt free by this time next year. We’re devoting about 20% of our income to debt repayment and saving about 6% (not much, I know, but we’re young and just starting out). We were building an emergency fund and currently have enough money in it to cover only a few months of our expenses, since we had to dip into it recently for unexpected car repairs.

My husband just lost his job. I make enough that we would just barely be able to cover all of our minimum payments and our bills, but my employer lost its biggest client and I may be out of a job soon too. Should we continue to make the same debt payments, reduce the amount or make only minimum payments until we are both securely employed?

Answer: As soon as you know that unemployment is a possibility, you should begin to conserve cash. That means making only the minimum payments on your debt and cutting your expenses to the bone. Although the job picture is improving, the average duration of unemployment is still close to 40 weeks. That’s a long time to go without a paycheck.

When you’re both employed again, you should reconsider your financial priorities. Getting out of debt is a great goal, but not all debt is created equal. Paying off credit cards should typically be a high priority, but you needn’t be in as much of a rush to pay off federal student loans, car loans or mortgages, because the rates on these debts is typically fixed and relatively low. Instead, make sure you’re taking advantage of retirement savings opportunities and building up a cash cushion to tide you through the next financial setback.