Start the new year with a plan — Pay off those credit cards, fast!

The holidays really are a “most wonderful time of the year.” Watching family members open their Christmas or Hannukah presents was probably one of last month’s highlights, but if you bought them with credit then the bill is about to come due. Ouch!

Paying off outstanding credit card balances is always more easily said than done. Most financial advisers say it’s best not to charge more than you’re able to pay off monthly in the first place. Once that’s in the rearview mirror, though, banking center manager Cynthia Frederick of First Source Bank, downtown Fort Wayne, encourages starting with the big financial picture.

“The rent gets paid first; the groceries, things like that. Then, if you have multiple credit cards, the one with the highest interest rate should get the most attention,” she said.

If you have more than one credit card, pay the minimum monthly payment on most of them and more than that on that one with the highest interest rate. This will help pay it off, freeing up a few extra dollars a month you can then use to pay down the one with the next highest interest rate, and so on.

What you don’t want to do is miss making a minimum payment on any card. Nonpayment or late payment fees are added to a credit card balance, raising it even further.

The credit card company might make things harder yet.

“If the card is maxed out and you don’t pay or pay late, those charges will be added, and put the card over your credit limit. Then you incur an over-limit fee,” Frederick said.

There’s more. On over-limit accounts, lenders usually impose a minimum payment high enough to bring the account back under the holder’s credit limit — an amount that’s always higher than a normal minimum payment.

Windfall income such as an inheritance, end-of-year work bonus or that holiday check Aunt Mary sent can be put toward credit card debt too. That’s actually a better use than investing it, according to Moore & Associates, a Fort Wayne advisory practice of Ameriprise Financial Services Inc.

In order to come out ahead investing windfall money, you would need to find an account or CD with an after-tax rate of return higher than your credit card interest rate—something harder to come by than a cheap iPhone these days.

Many credit cards also allow users to transfer balances from one card to another. If yours does, Moore & Associates encourages transferring the balance on a high-interest card to the one with the lowest interest, providing there’s enough room on it, of course.

If you still can’t seem to gain traction, talk to your credit card provider about the situation.

“What a banker doesn’t want is to sit down for credit counseling with someone who’s three months or more behind on payments. By then it’s gone to collection. So come in early,” said Frederick.

Going forward, remember that carrying constant credit card balances can affect a person’s credit score, too.

“If I’m using all the credit extended to me, that has more of a negative impact than using them for small amounts and paying them off,” Frederick said.

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