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Four Ways to Cut Your Credit Card Debt

John Ulzheimer is a nationally recognized credit expert and contributor to On The Money. Learn more at Credit.com or JohnUlzheimer.com.

I realize that right now most of us are laser-focused on what’s happening in the markets, and rightly so. And while priority number one is calming down, protecting what we have and positioning ourselves to exit this meltdown as best possible, I believe we can’t ignore the following…

We are here primarily because of one reason; people who didn’t deserve loans got loans and did exactly what any junior level risk analyst could have predicted…they stopped making payments and began defaulting. What’s the “fool me once” line? Hopefully this won’t happen again or shame on all of us.

So now what?

1. We have to ensure that we still have sufficient access to capital other than our savings.

2. We have to ensure that we maintain or achieve a very low credit risk rating because the new standard is likely to invite only a very exclusive borrower to the table for at least some period of time.

The best way to achieve #2 is to take action to address really the only actionable credit improvement strategy. That is to reduce your current amount of credit card debt.

I know what you’re saying. “John, how am I supposed to pay down my credit card debt if I don’t have the money to do so?” I hear you, really. So I’m going to share a variety of ways to address the debt now so that you will be ready to function once this is all over and behind us. Here’s my disclaimer: none are easy, none are fast and none are painless. If they were, we’d all be in $100,000 of credit card debt.

So in no particular order, here are your options…

1.Debt Settlement

With debt settlement you hire a company to negotiate with your lenders on your behalf. Essentially, they're negotiating a new, reduced amount of money that you would owe them that they will consider payment in full. You pay the debt settlement company directly for several months and then they try and pay off your creditors. They take their fee out of your contribution.

They all seem to have the same strategy, which is to tell you to stop communicating with your lenders. The theory is that if you can get your lenders so desperate for a payment, they'll be more open to accepting less than you really owe them.

Pro – If a settlement is accepted on an account, you will pay less than you initially owed the lender.

Con – The industry is polluted with scam artists and thieves and you’re not going to be able to tell the difference until it’s too late. People who still have decent credit should NOT choose settlement. The reason is your credit reports will be significantly damaged for seven years.

Suggestion – If you choose to settle, try doing so on your own. They can’t do anything that you can’t do yourself. And you’ll save their fees.

Strategy Grade:D

2. Self-Budgeting

Ok, let’s address the elephant in the room…budgeting is not fun. In fact, losing weight is more fun. People have a hard time sticking to a budget for more than a few months. Having said that, many people would be able to get out of debt on their own with this option. Things like dinners out, movies, cell phones, vacations, car washes, spa treatments, that new car you want but don’t need, expensive haircuts, and gym memberships are fun but have to go if you're in too much credit card debt.

Pro – Reducing your debts on your own will save your credit from damage and it's free. And you'd be surprised how flexible you can be when it comes to money. Sticking to a budget might eventually become second nature.

Con – Paying your debts off on your own will take time and time equals interest on revolving balances. The faster you can pay off your debts, the better.

Suggestion – Start with the most expensive debt first, which are those with the highest interest rates. Do this unless you have some really low dollar debts that can be knocked out in one month. The euphoria of NOT getting another statement will energize you to continue.

Debt Management Plans and Bankruptcy Options

Strategy Grade:B

3. Debt Management Plans (DMPs)

A debt management plan is set up through a legitimate non-profit Consumer Credit Counseling Service. Essentially you hire them at a reasonable fee ($40 per month in some cases) to act as your trustee. They talk to your lenders and renegotiate your payment requirements (if your lender is willing to work with them). They'll even make your payments for you by drafting the money directly from your checking or savings account.

The goal with most debt management plans is to have them completed in less than five years. And, when you're done, you'll be completely credit card debt free.

Pro – There's no negative impact to your credit scores by signing up for a DMP. Most credit card issuers will work with the legitimate credit counseling services and report your account in good standing as long as they are getting paid each month. And your existing late fees will probably be waived.

Con – Even though there is no overt negative impact to your credit, you can expect lenders to avoid you while you're in your DMP, and rightfully so.

You also have to be absolutely certain that you are working with a legitimate organization. If you want to be sure, you can find a local CCCS operation here.

Be certain that any organization you speak with is a member of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. If they are not, keep looking.

Suggestion – If you have a great deal of credit card debt and are not able to manage it on your own, this could be a good option for you.

Strategy Grade:A

4. Bankruptcy

Bankruptcy is legal protection from your creditors. There are two types of bankruptcy that consumers can generally file: Chapter 7 and Chapter 13. A Chapter 7 allows consumers to “discharge” or do away with almost all of their debts. There are some exceptions, as always, and the new bankruptcy laws make Chapter 7 much harder to file and much more expensive.

Chapter 13 is also referred to as a wage earner plan and has become much more common with the bankruptcy reform laws. You pay a monthly amount to a trustee who then distributes the money to your creditors.

Pro – If you file Chapter 7, you may walk away completely debt free, a good feeling to be sure. And, completing a Chapter 13 will still relieve you of a majority of your debts. Plus, depending on your state's laws, you may be able to keep your home and other property.

Con – A bankruptcy filing will stay on your credit reports for 10 years and your credit scores will be damaged by it almost the entire time. It will take some time before you can qualify for a loan at decent rates. There are also some lenders who will never do business with you again if you discharge one of their accounts in a bankruptcy.

Filing bankruptcy is also more expensive today than it has ever been. You can expect to pay well over $1,000 to file for Chapter 7 and you'll have to pay for mandatory credit counseling before you can even file.

Suggestion – Bankruptcy isn't always a bad option BUT it should usually be considered your last option.

Strategy Grade: D