Clark Howard is a nationally syndicated consumer advice expert
There are several steps you should take to get out of credit card debt. Paying off credit card debt that's several thousand dollars or more takes time, so you must discipline yourself. I usually find setting a goal of paying down debt in 60 months or less works best for people. Anything greater than 60 months and people tend to lose their focus.
Want to pay off your credit card debt? Here's how to get started
Laddering is your friend: If you have several cards, your first goal is to pay off the card with the highest interest rate. This process is called laddering. Pay more money toward that credit card and slightly less toward the other cards, until the card with highest-interest debt has a zero balance. Then you move onto the next card, and so on and so on. Resist the temptation to close the account when it's at a zero balance. Doing so will only hurt your credit score.
Use the calendar to your benefit: One proven way to pay more toward the card with the highest interest rate -- and to get rid of it faster -- is to make a separate half-payment every 14 days to the credit card company. Mark your calendar every 14 days and write that check or send your online payment that day. Making a half-payment every 14 days equals one extra month's payment you've made at the end of the year. Work these payments around your statement cycle to avoid paying late fees.
Forget about debt-settlement firms: If you watch bad late night TV, you've probably seen those ads being run by the debt-settlement outfits. Their promises scream out in the night about reducing your outstanding debt to just pennies on the dollar without making you file for bankruptcy — no matter how much outstanding debt you have.
That promise, however, is just an illusion. The debt-settlement firms' typical modus operandi goes like this: You pay an upfront fee to them, plus a monthly retainer. They then tell you to stop paying on your bills, stash the money you would have used to pay bills into a bank account and just sit on it. The idea is to make the credit card companies so desperate that they'll cry uncle and want to settle with you at a reduced rate. The reality, however, is that too often you wind up just damaging your credit.
In the worst-case scenario, some people complain that the more unsavory players in the debt-settlement business will take your upfront fee and first month's retainer and then put you on ignore when you try to initiate further contact with them. Beware! It's so easy to want to believe that somebody has a magic bullet to solve all your problems. But that's simply not the case.
Get help from a legitimate source: Get in touch with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) at NFCC.org or call 1-800-388-2227 to find a local affiliate office near you. NFCC affiliates offer free or low-cost debt counseling. About one in three of NFCC clients just need some budgeting help to get their lives back on track. Beyond simple budgeting, they can also get you set up on a hardship debt-management plan (DMP) if you qualify.
See if you qualify for a hardship DMP: In the case of a hardship DMP, lenders agree to modify the terms and conditions of their repayment policies. That means they may waive late and over-the-limit fees, in addition to reducing interest rates. They will not, however, agree to a reduction of your outstanding balance. But it could be worth a look if you meet the eligibility requirements. Get in touch with a local affiliate of the NFCC today to find out.