Paying down consumer debt is one of the first steps someone can take to get a handle on his financial situation. Given that some American households are carrying a lot of nonmortgage debt -- a national average of $16,727 according to the latest numbers from Experian, that may prove difficult for some.

As for credit card debt, the average American household carries about $6,900, according to various news stories citing Experian statistics. In reality, most houses likely carry less because the average gets skewed by the highly indebted households at the extreme. According to the 2004 Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances, the average credit card debt was $5,100, with the median debt at only $2,200. (The 2004 study is the latest survey from the Federal Reserve. The collection of data for the 2007 survey was completed in early 2008 and processing of the data is under way).

Debt of $2,200 is still quite a bit, and many consumers struggle to get ahead of the high interest rates charged on their credit card balances. The online Credit Card Payoff calculator from BankingMyWay.com can be used to figure how much a consumer needs to pay each month to get the balance down to zero.

To use the calculator, input the current balance, interest rates and current monthly payment. A timeline has to be set for how soon one wishes to pay off the balance, and what monthly charges a consumer expects to make on the card while paying it off. The calculator also offers an entry for one-time expenses that people may be planning to place on their credit cards in the near future.

Just because the calculator may allow for the input of future purchases, it's important to be realistic about future spending. It's much harder to pay down debt if spending can't be controlled.

Let's say a consumer has the median amount of debt -- $2,200 -- and is making payments of $100 a month (just a little over the estimated minimum payment of 4% of the balance). If the balance on the credit card is 17.5% and no further purchases are placed on the card, it will take just under 27 months for the balance to be paid down. An interest rate of 17.5% may be high. But a consumer could consider himself lucky - some cards charge interest rates of 22% or more.

What if a consumer can't cut himself off from his credit cards and expects to add as little as $200 a month in additional expenses> He'll need to pay $302 a month to bring his balance to zero in 27 months.

The timelines on the calculator and the monthly payment amounts can be fiddled with to find the right combination that works for a particular situation. The calculator offers a range of scenarios at different payoff intervals based on starting information.

The calculator works best for a single account. But it also can be helpful if balances are carried on several credit cards with roughly the same interest rate. If cards carry different rates, a set of numbers can be run through the calculator separately to get an idea of how long it will take if paying just the minimum for each card. But when it comes time to planning how to pay them off, begin with the account with the highest rate.

A card holder should put as much as he can toward this high rate card while continuing to make the minimum payments on his other cards, otherwise he'll default, which could affect his standing with all of his accounts. When the balance of the card with the highest rate is paid off, he should move on to the card with the next highest rate, but still keep paying the same monthly amount. As a card is paid off, more of the payment can go to paying down the next card until the debt is erased.

Once that point is reached, a consumer should consider limiting himself to one, low-interest rate card and cancel the others. That way, he'll avoid getting back in the same predicament again.

Peter McDougall is a freelance writer who lives in Freeport, Maine, with his wife and their dog.

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