How to eliminate credit card debt

Written by
Curtis Arnold
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Credit card debt following the pandemic has soared as the Fed has raised interest rates. Transunion, one of the three major credit bureaus, reports that average individual consumer card balances have risen from $5,010 in Q1 2022 to $5,733 in Q1 2023.

Lynnette Khalfani-Cox, author of the New York Times bestseller “Zero Debt: The Ultimate Guide to Financial Freedom,” believes that card debt will continue to climb, even though total card debt exceeded the trillion-dollar mark for the first time in the second quarter of 2023 according to the NY Federal Reserve Bank.

These numbers are sobering, to say the least. One silver lining, however, is that self-help approaches to eliminating card debt seem to be more prevalent these days. I believe this is due in large part to an increasing focus on financial empowerment and financial literacy, buzzwords that are commonly used today.

While self-help approaches at lowering debt do require more individual effort, such approaches aren’t “brain surgery” and are fairly straightforward. The best news is that they can be highly effective and are typically cheaper than seeking the debt relief services of outside agencies.

The goal of this article is simple. It is my hope that this overview of the most popular self-help techniques will inspire you to pay down your debt and/or to help someone else to do so.

What is the debt snowball method and how does it work?

One of the most tried-and-true methods of paying down your cards is the debt snowball method.

The snowball method works if you have multiple cards.  With this approach you pay off the smallest balances of your cards as quickly as possible. The focus is paying off your cards with the smallest balances first, rather than your cards with the highest rates.

The thought process here is that as you pay down small balances, you will get more and more motivated- similar to how a snowball gains momentum and mass as it goes down a steep mountain.

CardRatings Contributor, Geoff Williams, best explains this in his article: So you’ve maxed out your credit card — now what?

“Let’s say that you have three credit cards with $1,000, $2,000 and $3,000 on them. And let’s assume that the card with $3,000 has the highest interest rate. If that’s the case, technically the math works out where you should pay off the $3,000 credit card first, but you personally may feel better, and as if it’s more achievable, to first kill off the $1,000 debt.”

Williams continues with an example of how this method works:

  • You make the minimum payments on the $2,000 and $3,000 credit cards – and with the $1,000 credit card debt, you throw as much money as you can at it every month.
  • As soon as that $1,000 debt is paid off, focus on paying off the credit card with the $2,000 debt and continue to make the minimum payments on the $3,000 card. (And this is important: All the money that you were hurling at the $1,000 debt, you now take that and throw it at the $2,000 debt.)
  • Once that is paid off, you focus on the last card, which hopefully by now is quite a bit less than $3,000, since you’ve been making those minimum payments. (And all the money you were throwing at the $2,000 debt is now aimed at this last card.)


If you have a good credit score, consider applying for a 0% balance transfer card. If your new credit limit is high enough, you can transfer debt from your existing card(s) to your new 0% introductory rate card. During the intro period, which is typically 6-21 months, you make payments that lower your debt, but you pay zero interest.

What is the debt avalanche method and how does it work?

The debt avalanche method is similar to the snowball method, but the focus is reversed and is instead based on interest rates. With the debt avalanche method, you’re prioritizing paying off cards with the highest rates first. This method will normally save you the most in interest or finance charges. Williams explains:

“Let’s try and make the math easy and assume that you have three cards and they each have a $3,000 balance (for sake of simplicity). The first card is charging you 16.49% interest, the second card is charging you 22.24% and the third is charging 26.99%.

“So in this example, you would make the minimum required payment on the two cards with the lower interest rates (16.49% and 22.24%) and divert the rest of ANY additional funds you have in a given month to pay off the card with the 26.99% interest rate.

“Once that is paid off, then you take all of the money you were spending on the 26.99% interest rate card and shove it to the 22.24% interest rate card. And after that’s paid off, obviously you take your money and pay it toward the final credit card.”


Unless you are using the snowball method, one of the greatest debt traps is making only the minimum payment each month. Make every effort to pay over the minimum each month, even if it is only a few dollars over. The long-term impact of making just the minimum payment can be financially devastating.

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How to pick a debt elimination method that works for you

While there are certainly recommended strategies to pay down card debt, there is not a single one-size-fits-all approach. At the end of the day, you have to find a strategy that works for you in the long term as there is typically not a quick fix when it comes to getting out of debt.

Various factors, including individual personality traits, should be considered when you’re trying to choose the best method. The goal is to find a customized approach that is not overly complicated.

Beverly Harzog, a consumer finance analyst with U.S. News and World Report and author of “The Debt Escape Plan: How to Free Yourself from Credit Card Balances, Boost Your Credit Score, and Live Debt-Free,” accumulated $20,000+ in card debt, despite the fact that she was a CPA. She believes motivation is a crucial component to getting out of debt.


I definitely believe in a custom approach to debt reduction. The strategy that will work for you is the method that you can stick to. Personality does play a role, but feeling motivated by watching your balance go down is a powerful force.

If you need the experience of knocking off balances quickly, then the snowball method might be for you. It comes down to what motivates you. This is important because getting out of debt is difficult and it takes patience and persistence.”

Beverly Harzog, Author and Finance Analyst


Our free card payoff calculator is a great tool to help you understand how paying a bit more each month can reduce the time until your card(s) are paid off. If you increase your monthly payment slightly and re-calculate the numbers — the resulting savings may pleasantly surprise you!

How to create your own method of paying down credit card debt

You can also create your own method by being creative. Harzog actually created a hybrid technique while paying down her debt, which she calls the “Debt Blizzard”. It is basically a combination of the snowball and avalanche methods.

“You start with the snowball method and pay off your lowest balance for a quick adrenaline rush. Then you switch to the avalanche method and target the card with the highest APR,” she says. “You save more money with the avalanche method. But paying off the first low balance can help you feel motivated to keep going.”


Harzog stresses that it’s important to get to the root of the problem as you go through this process. Perhaps you got into debt due to an illness, for example. It wasn’t your fault, but you still have to pay it off.

If you got into debt by spending recklessly, then obviously address that. She wisely advises that you DO NOT use cards again until you feel confident you can use them responsibly.

Final thoughts/cautions

There is nothing more exhilarating than paying down card debt. I personally experienced this exhilaration in the mid-90s by taking advantage of 0% APR offers and paid off $40,000 in debt in the process. This experience became the driving force behind the launch of this website.

Having said this, using self-help strategies to pay down debt isn’t usually fun. In fact, Harzog cautions that it’s stressful to pay off debt. She adds that, “It’s easy to get tired of living on a tight budget and this can lead to spending to boost your mood.”

She offers three suggestions to help ensure your success:

  1. Stop using credit cards right now. Focus on paying off your card(s) and getting your financial freedom back.
  2. Keep some small treats for yourself. Instead of getting a latte every day, do it only once a week for example. Self-care is essential when you’re getting out of debt.
  3. If you’re comfortable with it, share some details with family or friends. This can create a supportive environment for you.

While self-help strategies work wonderfully for many consumers, you many need debt help from an outside agency. Even if you’re confident that a self-help approach is best for you, it’s a good idea to consider all your options.

Curtis Arnold
CardRatings Founder

Curtis founded in 1998 and, in so doing, helped pioneer the concept of rating credit cards. He has been a nationally recognized expert in consumer credit for well over 20 years. He is the author of “How You Can Profit from Credit Cards: Using...Read more

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