Yes, I’m talking to you who has 3+ credit cards with more than last month’s gas on them.  I’m talking to you with a credit score that makes you cringe. I’m talking to you about a subject we hate talking about… but is so necessary to discuss and—what’s more—take immediate action for the betterment of your future.

I feel like I need to give the full disclosure that I’m not a financial consultant (for those of you who know me, there’s a ‘duh’ after that). I am a 26-year-old woman who made some painfully stupid money decisions in the few years following college, and I’m now in the process of taking back control of my finances. Because some day (sooner than later), I want to buy a house. Or the good brand of almond butter without feeling guilty—whichever comes first.

To be clear: student loan debt is one thing. Most of us have it, we grumble about the monthly bills, and keep going with our lives. Same goes with car loans. And mortgages, if any of you millennials are lucky enough to have your own home. Then there’s credit card debt. The most evil of them all, because it’s likely your own fault that you racked up so much debt (hey, I’m still paying off sushi dinners from 3 years ago, we all make mistakes). You know it’s up to you to put on your big girl pants and get out of it…

But here we are, hiding from the thousands of dollars we owe and throwing whatever money we can at it each month, just to keep the debt quiet and in the shadows. It’s scary to face because oh my god that’s a shit ton of money I don’t have and what the hell am I going to do about it and how am I ever going to get out of this.

Spoiler alert: it’s not going to go away anytime soon. In fact, given the interest rate, the problem is only going to get worse. So let’s take a deep breath and tackle it head-on together. Are you ready?

It all begins with this one very important step.

The very first step to paying down your credit card debt is paying off your credit card with the lowest balance first.

This is where you say, “Really, Lexi? Your advice to pay off credit card debt is to, what, pay it off? How stupid do you think I am?”

No, no, no, it’s more complicated than that!

Imagine for a moment how ecstatic you’ll be when you accomplish paying off a credit card. Imagine the pure, unadulterated joy of such an achievement that, up until now, felt impossible. It will inspire you and encourage you that yes you can. You’re proving to yourself that you’re in control and that you are capable of doing this. You just checked one credit card off your list—no matter the amount you just paid off, that is a genuinely awesome accomplishment.

Now you have momentum. Now you’ve gotten yourself into a mindset that you can do this. Now you KNOW you are capable of paying off debt. Now you’ve established this habit—and now you can turn to the biggest and scarier credit card with the highest APR, and give it the “You’re next” death stare.

How you’ll pay off this first credit entirely depends on you and your budget. We’re not getting into that today (one financial beast at a time, folks), so I’m going to trust you to be strategic about how much you put toward this one bill each money. For instance, I take a specific chunk out of every paycheck and immediately put it toward the targeted credit card (in this case, the credit card with the lowest balance).

A few things to consider while you are paying off your first credit card:

  • Pay the minimums on your other credit cards. That may go against everything you’ve learned about paying credit cards, but do it anyway. Put every extra dollar toward that one credit card payment—the more you contribute to this one amount, the sooner you’ll pay it off, check it off the list, do your happy dance, and move on to the next.
  • DON’T USE THIS CREDIT CARD. This is all about taking control of your finances and paying down debt. Just because there’s a wider margin between what you owe and your max credit line does not mean that’s extra spending money. No excuses. The moment you swipe the card once—even if it’s to fill up your gas tank because otherwise you can’t make it to work—you are giving in to old habits. If you’re that short on money (yup, definitely been there), figure out another way. Hate to break it to you, but you dug this grave and it’s time to take responsibility for it.
  • Similarly, once you pay it off, check it off the list, and do your happy dance, don’t get all excited and start using it again unless you are financially ready to put small payments on it solely for the rewards points and absolutely-positively-dear-God-you-must-make-sure-to pay its entirety every single month.

I had a meeting with two financial advisers yesterday about my retirement plan and the conversation quickly turned to my credit card debt. (Which, by the way, they’re in agreement with everything I just said above. They even said they were impressed by how I was handling the situation, and I admit I felt pretty darn proud.) Still, even talking about it with the professionals was embarrassing—because it seriously sucks and I’m ashamed that 23-year-old Lexi thought credit cards meant she could afford a “better” lifestyle than her insurance representative’s salary.

But you know what? It is what it is, and honestly by putting all my energy, motivation, and money into this one credit card makes the whole gigantic problem not feel so terrifying. And by taking baby steps (starting with the credit card that has the lowest balance), the overwhelming feeling disperses and I’m actually able to see clearly and take real, lasting action.

And I know I’m not the only one in this situation. We may be the black sheep, the odd one out, but we’re not alone. We are just as capable of buying a house (or the good brand of almond butter because—hello—priorities), of getting married and having a family without the looming debt, of using credit cards strategically for the reward points and not because we think we can in the moment. We just need a good place to start!

So pinpoint that lowest balance credit card and get diligent. No more minimums on it—give it love, get excited every time you see that dollar amount go down, and seriously celebrate and embrace that achievement of paying it completely off. Doesn’t matter if it takes 1 month or 2 years, it is essential to keep at it and hold your head high. And then (the most important part) hold onto that wonderful, positive, powerful feeling and use it as a tool for the next one.

Related post: How to Grocery Budget Like A Boss

Author: Lexi Baker

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