PhotoWhen you ask consumers what their top five financial goals are, usually “saving money” and “paying down debt” are among them.

This year, after what may have been a very robust season of holiday spending and rising consumer confidence, an online poll shows that getting out of debt is far-and-away the top priority among consumers.

The end-of-the-year poll conducted by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC)shows 80% of respondents picked “paying down debt” as a top goal to start 2017.

Bruce McClary, spokesperson for the NFCC, says he isn't surprised.

“It’s a sobering moment when the credit card bill arrives in January and reveals a mountain of debt fueled by holiday spending,” McClary said. “January is a good time for planning to get debt under control before it becomes unmanageable.”

Debt can quickly mount

And that can quickly happen. If you start January with a balance of $1,000 but only pay $150 of it, then add $500 in spending the following month, you've suddenly got a balance of $1,350 – plus monthly interest charges.

McClary says consumers facing mounting debt in January shouldn't panic, but should also realize that it will take some time and effort to bring that balance back to zero.

Here are some things to do to begin to shrink that credit card balance:

Look at the details of each debt. That means drilling down through balances, transactions, interest, fees, terms and conditions. Try to identify the debt that is growing fastest.

Not all debts are equal

Prioritize. Place the most attention on the credit accounts with the highest interest rates. If you can speed up the payment process on these accounts, it will save money that can be allocated to other debts. Remember that high interest rates and lengthy repayment schedules are a costly combination.

There is always hope. Even if you think there is no extra money in your budget to apply to debt repayment, reach out to trusted sources. Your lender may be able to make some accommodation. A non-profit credit counselor may be able to provide helpful guidance.

Avoid so-called debt settlement companies that promise they can settle your debt for pennies on the dollar, as long as you pay an advance fee.

It's also helpful to remember that repaying debt is a marathon, not a sprint. It might not have taken very long to run up that huge credit card bill, but unless you win the lottery, it's going to take a while to pay it down.

That's the toxic element of debt. When you borrow against the future to spend today, you are in essence reducing tomorrow's income. Future income will not only have to cover current expenses, but pay back what you spent in the past.

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