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It’s no secret. Living under a cloud of credit card debt increases stress, can be very costly and causes relationship strife. Not to mention, it’ll hurt your credit score and impact your ability to achieve dreams like buying a home, saving for retirement, traveling or helping your children pay for college.

Paying off this debt is one of the first and most crucial steps to take when working to improve your financial well-being. While it’s a problem that can’t be solved overnight, you can achieve your goal through dedication, planning and self-control. To help you get started on the journey to being debt free, we’ve outlined some of the most common dos and don’ts of paying off your plastic.

Do cut back on spending

Decrease your discretionary spending and reign in impulse buys. Then put the money you save toward your debts. Other simple ways to adjust your spending habits include cooking at home instead of dining out, using coupons, grocery shopping with a list, and cutting unnecessary expenses like cable television and daily lattes.

Don’t tempt fate without an emergency fund on hand

Before focusing on digging yourself out of debt, save up at least a $1,000 emergency fund in a Emergency Savings Account. That way you won’t have to reach for credit cards whenever faced with a flat tire or an unexpected call to your plumber.

Do put your credit card usage on hold

It’ll be tough to make progress if you’re adding to your debt during the payoff process. Instead, pause your credit card use until your debts are paid. If you’d like to resume credit card use after all of your balances are down to zero, do so with caution — ensuring that you pay your balance in full every month.

Don’t pay just the minimum on all of your balances

In many cases, your minimum payment only slightly exceeds your monthly interest charges, leaving little to contribute toward your principle. If you’re making the common mistake of just paying the minimum on all of your credit cards each month, it could take many years (or decades) to pay them off.

Do adopt a strategy like the snowball method

Success can be hard to come by without a strategy. One that we’ve found works well is the snowball method. It focuses on making larger payments toward the card with the lowest balance first while paying the minimum on the others. Once that card is paid off, contribute its payment amount to another card each month, and so on until you’re paying on just one card and eventually none.

Don’t leave your credit score on autopilot

Checking your credit score regularly is as important to your financial health as checking your cholesterol is to your physical health. Keeping watch on it can help you identify problems so you can fix them. After all, spikes in your score could lead to spikes in your interest rates, making credit cards even harder to pay off.

Do put extra income toward debt

Tax returns, bonuses, raises, money from side gigs, garage sale earnings — you’ll want to spend these kinds of extra income wisely. They could be your ticket to achieving financial freedom. Instead of going on a shopping spree and adding to your collection of stuff, quicken your payoff pace by using your extra cash flow to pay down your credit card balances.

Don’t close accounts once they’re paid off

It may be tempting to close accounts once they’re paid off, but that isn’t good for your credit score. Since your credit utilization ratio (your available credit vs. how much you owe) makes up a third of credit score calculations, keeping accounts open improves this ratio while closing them has the opposite effect.

Do find ways to consolidate your debt

It’s challenging to stay on top of multiple payments and interest rates on several cards. Simplify your payoff efforts and pay less interest over time by merging your debt into fewer accounts, either through a debt consolidation loan or credit card balance transfers (preferably with a low introductory rate).

Don’t go it alone

Whenever trying to accomplish a difficult goal, it’s a good idea to have a dependable support system. Find a trusted friend, family member or credit counselor you can count on. Not only can they keep you from veering off course, they can be a voice of reason whenever you need a little encouragement.

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