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How to fix your credit and tackle debt in 2019

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Consumer debt in the United States is on track to top $4 trillion by 2019, with 41% of households carrying some sort of credit card debt. The average American family has $5,700 in credit card debt alone.

Yahoo Finance tackled your credit and debt concerns during our Year-End Money Questions Livestream. Our panel of experts, who included Jean Chatzky, CEO of HerMoney.com, Avani Ramnani, CFP and wealth manager at Francis Financial, and Alicia Jegede, CPA and tax planner, shared their advice for how to responsibly get your credit score up and keep it there.

How to get that credit card debt paid off

If you’re part of the 41% of households carrying credit card debt, making a plan for the new year to get it taken care of is a great idea, but you need a strategy. Chatzky suggests approaching debt using the avalanche method.

“Stack your debts highest interest rate to lowest and pay off the highest interest rate first while making minimum payments on the rest,” she says. “It’s actually the fastest, cheapest way to dig yourself out.”

In addition, you can request a lower interest rate from your credit card company, or you can find another card with lower interest — or even a 0% interest rate period — and transfer the balance to make paying it off easier.

The best way to fix your credit score

Lots of consumers are eager to fix their credit score, though Chatzky warns that “fix” isn’t exactly the best word.

“It’s not like there’s a magic bullet,” she says. “The secret to improving your credit score is to pay all your bills on time every single time, to only use 10% to 30% of the available credit you have and to not apply for credit that you don’t need.”

Also, if you’ve paid off a card, resist the temptation to get it out of your life completely. “Don’t close credit cards that you are not using,” Chatzky says. “That hurts your credit utilization. It’ll take your score down.”

You might be hurting your credit score without knowing it

There is more to maintaining good credit than simply paying off your credit cards every month. Even if you pay in full, if you’re carrying a large balance even during the month, it can ding your score.

“When we’re talking about debt utilization — the percentage of your available credit that you’re actually using — we do want to keep that in a 10% to 30% range,” Chatzky says. “And if you’re going above that, even if you pay off the balance at the end of the month, it’s not good for your credit.”

If you find yourself in this position, you can avoid bringing your score down by making multiple payments throughout the month instead of just when the bill is due. “The credit card company won’t mind,” Chatzky says.

You could also contact your credit card company and request an increase in your credit limit, which will bring down your utilization amount.

“Assuming you don’t use the additional capacity, that will actually give you a boost in your score right away,” Chatzky says.

The best way to stay on top of your credit profile is to request a report yourself – you can get a free one each year at annualcreditreport.com – or use one of the free credit score monitoring tools offered by most credit cards.

“You can apply for a free credit report and just go through your report and see are there any mistakes on the credit report,” Ramnani says. “Is there something that needs to be corrected?”

Follow Ned Ehrbar on Twitter.

This story was originally published on December 20, 2018.