Pay Off Credit Card Debt and Save Money at the Same Time

Rachel Morey
May 5, 2017
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It’s one of the most confusing and frequently pondered questions in personal finance, but untangling it could mean the difference between meeting financial goals or falling far short. Should you pay off credit cards or put money aside for emergencies?

The average American household’s income grew 28% between 2003 and 2016, but the cost of living rose 30%. Credit cards seem to be helping the typical household bridge the gap.

The average interest rate on credit card debt is 18.76%, and the average household shells out just over $1,200 to pay the interest each year. On paper, the solution seems simple: pay off the credit cards, never use them again, and start socking money away in an emergency fund so there’s no need to rely on revolving debt to save the day.

Unfortunately, the reality of day-to-day life is much more difficult for most of us.

People with great credit and a low balance in their savings account have the tools they need to create a plan to fund their savings using the power of rewards cards. For some, “credit card churning” is a way to make a bit of side cash, get free vacations, and rack up tens of thousands of points by taking advantage of limited-time sign-up bonuses.

For most people, this behavior represents a risk that just isn’t worth the time investment. One small mistake could render the entire plan useless, or worse, could put the churner into a position where they are in even more debt and their credit score takes a hit.

There is some wisdom in using credit cards for everyday expenses when there’s a cashback bonus attached, though. Be sure to pay the total amount of the bill each month to avoid interest charges and use the cash-back savings to pay down other debt.

Watch out for fees that often come as part of a rewards card’s package. A $95 annual fee may be hard to make up for over the course of a year, even with a generous cash back program.

Deprivation is a form of torture, so vowing to stop spending money on “things you don’t need” forever is a sure way to put yourself on the path to failure. Going on strike for a short amount of time works well for some, though.

Refusing to spend money on things that aren’t absolutely necessary for one week is a great way to save some cash. This works especially well if your budget is complicated and you have a family. In some cases, you may be simply putting off purchases for a few days. You also may realize that many “important” purchases aren’t really important enough to part with hard-earned cash for.

At the end of the no-spending week, divide the savings in half between an emergency fund and credit card debt. For some, this short-term exercise in deprivation works like a hard reset to their entire money system. Do this several times each year and watch your debt decrease and your savings account grow.

Divert monthly payments from debt that reaches $0 to savings.

When your balance reaches $0, don’t stop paying. The extra money will just disappear into the abyss of the monthly budget’s “miscellaneous” category. Instead, divert those funds to a savings account.

Keep the savings account separate from the account that pays recurring bills, and watch it grow while you go about your financial business. Reducing lingering credit card debt and removing high interest rates from the list of costs in the budget is a smart way to take control of personal finances. Swearing off credit card use forever just isn’t practical for most people, and it takes time to build up an emergency fund.

With an eye toward balance, it’s possible to both build savings and reduce debt without causing too much financial pain.

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