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How to Control Credit Card Debt

Pay off the card with the highest interest rate first and cut your spending

En español | Q. My husband and I are both 60. His hours were slashed at work so we lost income. We used credit cards to pay for things we needed and now we have more debt than we're comfortable with. What's the best way to manage this and get by with less money coming in?

credit card debt

Kick Smeets/Hollandse Hoogte/Redux

A. Unfortunately, many older Americans are in your situation. A recent study of job seekers by the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College found that 30 percent of workers age 55-plus had more in credit card debt than retirement savings. According to the report, "The 'New Unemployables,' " 41 percent had just as much in credit card debt as retirement savings.

Experts caution against using retirement savings to pay off debt. Instead, look for ways to reduce expenses. For instance, when is the last time you called around looking for a better price on your home or auto insurance? Or a lower rate for cable TV? Better yet, can you cancel TV service altogether until you get back on your feet?

The more you reduce your expenses, the faster you can pay off your debts.

Now to your credit card debt. First, call the toll-free number on the back of each card and ask for a lower rate. You might mention offers you've received for new cards — say you'd like the offers matched. If you've been on time with your payments, the companies may be inclined to work with you on this.

Next, pay the minimum amount on each of your cards except the one with the highest interest rate — on that one pay as much extra as you can. When it's fully paid off, focus your extra money on the card with the second-highest interest rate, and so on.

If your situation requires more, you may want to call the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at 1-800-388-2227 to find an accredited counselor in your area to help you with repayment strategies.

Carole Fleck is a senior editor at the AARP Bulletin.