I know this is just a horrible thing to talk about period, much less on a blog, but I know I'm not the only 20-something out there with a big old Beloved-sized credit-card haint haunting my house and my life, and I was getting to the point of thinking these balances are impossible to beat. Now I've wiped out two out of three. I feel about this the way some people feel about their food diets or their course grades or their, um, painkiller addictions. You really can quit with a little determination each day! What's worked for me:
1) Sign up for an Account Protection or similar service through one of your credit cards that includes, as a complementary feature, free quarterly credit reports. Admittedly, this can backfirecredit-raters don't like to see that you've requested too many reports, because it makes you look skittish, even alarmist about your own standing. But I think I needed to see a real-world document and a little line graph that was coming closer and closer to Touching the Void in order to really snap to. (Note: my quarterly credit rating has actually gone down as I've paid off the cards, which has been a blessing in disguise, albeit, to steal from Lucia DeLury, a fucking good disguise: my incentive to spend less didn't dissipate the first time I saw a bump in the right direction.)
2) Keep focused on how little you really need to shop. Frankly, I've never been much of a spender, I just spent more than the pittance I made as a grad student (hard to avoid). Coming into a real salary was a huge relief, but can also be a real lure into upping your spending to match your new means. Just don't. If you're a grad student, read all those books you already own, and which sunk you into debt in the first place: you save money and feel like you're finally making some intellectual headway.
3) Fewer restaurants. It's more fun, healthier, and cheaper to cook anyway. Even with friends or guests, making food together is a blast. I was so lazy for a long time about buying too many meals instead of walking to the grocery store, even though I like making food. Bad scene.
4) Strictly categorize what you'll charge. Trying to go totally cold-turkey on the charge cards didn't work for me, so instead, I confined their use to a) travel expenses, or similarly big one-time expenses, b) store-bought groceries, and c) movie tickets, which I refuse to feel bad about buying, but which also have a reliable ceiling: you're not going to spend more than $10 at a pop, ever.
5) Write more checks to charities and NFPs. Another good idea with the added bonus of helping on spending. If I write a check, I know the money is "gone" in a way it doesn't feel "gone" on a card, and it keeps me more alert to my spending. (I'm a rigorous checkbook-balancer.) If you send the money to someplace that really needs it and that you care about, instead of just acquiring some more stuff you don't need, you still feel the nagging pinch to spend less afterward, but feel good about where your money has gone, and you get used to making donations a regular part of a monthly budget that's well within your means.
Thus ended the post from your uncouth and presumptuous financial advisor, who has no business being anybody's financial advisor, but when you and all your friends are broke, sharing money-saving tips is just a gossipy version of swapping coupons. If you've got more advice, post it below (comma) yo.