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Credit card debt: What can you do about it?

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(Read caption) A MasterCard logo is seen on a door outside a restaurant in New York in this file photo. Hamm recommends calling credit card companies to negotiate interest rates as a possible step in getting out of credit card debt.

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For most people, the debt that really tips things from a manageable situation into a very challenging one is credit card debt.

Credit cards are incredibly easy to acquire and incredibly easy to use without a second thought. Often, people can rack up hundreds of dollars in debt before ever seeing a single bill. The abstraction between the plastic card and the money and debt it represents often leads people to make poor choices, which leads people to debt.

Eventually, people begin to struggle with their credit card payments or find themselves shocked by the minimum payment.

I know this struggle. I’ve been there. Once upon a time, I kept building debt until it reached a very painful point.

One of my first courses of action was to call up the credit card companies and play a little hardball with them.

Let’s get this straight before we start: this is not a tactic you want to use if you rely on your credit card to keep food on the table. If you are in a truly desperate situation, this technique has the potential to backfire on you, because the credit card company can respond by closing your card.

Now, if you’re in a reasonably good financial state and aren’t relying on the card to live, that’s not much of a drawback, particularly compared to the big advantages you might get from such a call.

The big advantage, of course, is a drop in your interest rate, which will reduce the amount of interest charged to your account each month, directly saving you a lot of money over the long run.

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For example, if you’re on track to pay off a $10,000 credit card debt in 8 years, one that has a 19.9% interest rate, you’ll be paying $10,055 (approximately) in interest over that period. Get that rate reduced to 9.9% and you’re paying only $4,516 (approximately) in interest. You’ll save about $5,500 just due to one little change.

How do you do it? The first step is to give the company a call. The number’s on the back of your card. Navigate their phone menus until you reach a live person, then state that you’re really stretching to make the payments on the card and that you’d like an interest rate reduction. If the person who talks to you can’t (or won’t) reduce your rate, don’t be afraid to talk to a supervisor.

The key thing is to not get angry. The bank may not want to reduce your rate, particularly at first. If you hear a “no,” don’t respond with anger and hang up. Patiently explain your situation again. Eventually, you’ll be passed to someone who can make a decision on your situation.

Remember, only do this if you can tolerate having the card cancelled (meaning you still owe the money) or having the credit limit reduced. If you can’t handle those things, don’t try this tactic. If you can, though, this tactic can save you a lot of money if you have a hefty credit card balance.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. 

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