NEW YORK (MainStreet) — While credit card debt may seem like a mountain to many, can taking it out a mole hill at a time lead to renewed financial balance?
New research from two associate professors at Texas A&M shows that when people make small, reachable goals for themselves concerning getting out of debt, they are more likely to reach the larger goal of being debt-free. The downside of the study, conducted by Alexander L. Brown and Joanna N. Lahey and published in the Journal of Marketing Research, is consumers tended to prefer paying off smaller balances first, regardless of the interest rate, leaving larger balances on higher rate cards longer.
While this method for getting out of debt may seem counter-intuitive, some finance experts say it may not be as bad as one thinks.
“The best method to pay off credit card debt is the method that works for you — the method that you stick to,” said Erin Ellis, financial educator at Philadelphia Federal Credit Union.
“It may be great financial advice to pay on the card with the highest interest rate first; however, if watching your balance barely decrease is frustrating, you might lose hope and quit,” Ellis added.
She added starting to pay off one’s credit card debt by paying the most toward the lowest balance card and the minimum on your other cards can feel very rewarding — and will take a short amount of time to see results.
“When you get a statement with a zero balance, it can be powerful,” she said. “If this achievement is likely to motivate you, keep it up. In fact, once you pay off one credit card in full you will have one less bill to pay—another achievement.”
Paul Tarins, president of Sovereign Sovereign Retirement Solutions, agreed setting small goals to crawl out of debt can help but cautioned against letting such a strategy lull consumers into a false sense of security and not have them focus on the real problem.
“Setting small reachable goals and putting a focus on reducing your current credit card debt will have a favorable impact in the short run,” Tarins said. “With that being said, I feel that more importantly you must first address the situation that put you into debt."
“Look at your budget, and see if it aligns with your income,” Tarins added. “Is there room to make subtle changes that can insure that you can stay out of debt moving forward, or are there any life style changes needed? Correcting the problem at the source will ensure that you can indeed stay debt free.”
Consumers also can fall into another pitfall, according to experts. As some watch their debt decrease, they can feel empowered to spend more, falling back into the dangerous debt cycle, according to April Lewis-Parks, director of education for the non-profit Consolidated Credit.
“Once each debt is eliminated, it zeros out the account balances and leaves the consumer with one less bill to pay,” Lewis-Parks said. “Those clean credit lines can make it feel like you have your debt in a manageable place, even if some of your highest balances still remain. As a result, you can start charging again before you're finances are really ready.”
She added it’s most important to set goals that are specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and time-sensitive.
“This means you set goals that can be reached by taking certain actions over a defined period of time,” Lewis-Parks said. “Goals like these give you a clear direction and course of action.”
And no matter the success a person may have by setting small, attainable goal, Ellis reminds one thing is eminently important.
“Keep in mind achieving each small goal is not permission to backslide,” Ellis said. “Don’t pick up a new card or fall back into old habits.”