In a survey of more than 2,000 adults in the United States by CreditCards.com, 28% of people admitted that they don't pay their credit card bill in full each month, and were reliant on credit for an extended amount of time.
"A striking 43% [said] they've carried a balance for two or more years, and almost 1 in 4 (23%) have been carrying debt for five or more years," CreditCards.com revealed. "Extrapolated out to the U.S. population, that means about 29 million Americans have been carrying a balance for at least two years."
Some people are reliant on credit cards because of the dearth of affordable housing, which makes paying for everyday expenses like food, childcare, and utilities a struggle. But in the survey, even 27% of high-earning individuals said they've carried a balance for five years or more, racking up debt on vacations and home repairs.
People struggling to pay off credit card debt, student loans, and medical bills sometimes have a long road ahead of them — but there are options to take off the pressure. Aside from earning more money, and avoiding lifestyle creep, here are some tactics for paying off debt.
A small survey from CreditCards.com found that 89% of people "who asked their credit card issuers to reverse a late fee had their request granted." Seventy-eight percent of people who asked for a reduced interest rate were also given the okay — but overall, less than 20% of people made either kind of request.
"As your credit score improves, you should always look to call your credit card provider and ask for a lower interest rate if possible," says Shannon McLay, the president and founder of The Financial Gym.
If your account is past due or your credit utilization ratio is high, requesting a reduction until after your account is current and you are paying consistently is a good idea. Banks have little incentive to help you pay them less money each month, but proving that you're a reliable customer will help you make your case.
Not sure what to say? CreditCards.com has a script you can follow when you're on the phone. Come armed with the knowledge of your current rate (which you can find on your statement), and an ideal, preferred figure — ideally an APR as close to 10% as possible, CreditCards.com suggests.
"We suggest that clients with credit scores over 700 and a modest amount of credit card debt apply for a 0% balance transfer card, specifically one that does not charge a balance transfer fee," McLay says. "This will allow them to transfer their high-interest debt to 0% debt and pay it down over the initial 0% timeframe."
Personal Loan (Credit Card Consolidation)
"For clients with credit scores over 700 [who have] significant credit card debt, we'll explore a personal loan where they can consolidate their high-interest debt to a lower interest rate, and put forth a plan to pay off all of the debt over the life of the loan," McLay says.
There's a reason she mentions that this option is more beneficial for people with higher credit scores: Credit card consolidation might seem like a silver bullet, but the new rate you are given if you choose this route might not always result in lower overall payments. You could end up paying more — just over a longer period of time. Make sure to compare the end figures first.
Signing up for auto-pay through your student loan servicer will generally lead to a reduction in the interest you owe — usually in the neighborhood of 0.25%. That might sound small, but every dollar counts over time. If you tend to live paycheck to paycheck but want to go this route, be sure to check your account balance very regularly to avoid overdrafting.
"We make sure that our clients with federal loans look into consolidating their loans for lower interest rates, or seek out various repayment plans that fit within their income and lifestyle," McLay says. (Student Loan Hero has a great primer on many of those options — but be aware that federal changes to some of those programs may impact your eligibility, or the longevity of these options.)
Pay In Cash
In some cases, you may be able to reduce your overall bill by paying upfront in cash. Pam Horack, the founder of Pathfinder Planning, told Magnify Money that "when I have had large bills, I called and asked if I could get a discount for paying cash. They reduced my bill by 20% and I paid with my FSA [Flexible Spending Account]."
Carol Pryor, policy director at The Access Project, advises against paying with a credit card in particular, telling Medical Billing Advocates of America: "We recommend against credit cards, because the hospital loses any interest in negotiating with you" once they have your money — "and your bills could be even higher if you end up paying interest on the charges," the site adds.
Inquire About A Payment Plan
Medical Billing Advocates of America also recommends asking for a discount after a procedure, or setting up an installment plan. In the first case, you might ask: "If I pay you 30% of this bill right now, will you write off the rest?" they suggest. "Even if your initial offer is rejected, the hospital may counter with a discount you can live with."
In the second case, you can often request an interest-free payment plan by calling the hospital or doctor's office. This option is "often written in the fine print on the statement," Marcy Quattrochi, the manager of financial counseling at NorthShore University HealthSystem told MoneyUnder30.com.