Best investment? Paid-off debt

Sure, stocks are much cheaper now than they were at the first of the year. So are houses.

But if you're carrying a lot of credit card or other debt, your best investment is to pay down that debt.

Think of it this way: If you invest $10,000 in a 10-year Treasury note, you'll earn 3.36% a year, or $336. After 10 years, you'll have pocketed $3,360.

Now, for the sake of comparison, let's say you have a $10,000 credit card bill, and the card charges a 19% interest rate. Suppose your card issuer requires you to pay 4% of your balance every month, so your minimum payment is $400.

If you pay your minimum each month (and assuming you must pay at least $10 a month), it will take a bit more than 15 years to repay your debt. If you pay that debt off now, over 10 years, you'll save $15,672 in payments and $6,204 in interest. Put another way: You'd earn $336 in interest from your T-bill in your first year. But you'd save an average $350 a month the first year by paying off your credit card — clearly a better bet.

Unfortunately, most people don't have $10,000 sitting idle; that's just one reason they're facing a mountain of credit card debt. Still, even if you pay down your debts gradually, you'll free up money for investing later. Just be careful not to dig yourself a bigger hole than you started with. Here are five ways to help get out of debt — and five traps that would probably bury you even deeper.

5 ways to climb out of debt

1. Stop using your cards. It won't do you much good to pay down your debt if you keep adding to it. If you've arranged to have some recurring charges automatically billed to your credit card, see if you can have those bills deducted from your checking account instead. (Be sure to keep track, to avoid overdraft fees on your checking account.) Or see if you can eliminate those bills altogether.

2. Try to get a better rate. Some cards charge 30% or more, and anything you can do to reduce your rate is to your benefit. Start by calling your credit card company, says Gerri Detweiler, an adviser at Credit.com, a consumer website.

"Be pleasant, but be persistent," she says. As you can imagine, the odds aren't great that you'll be rewarded with a lower rate, but it can't hurt to ask.

Should you transfer balances to a cheaper card? Possibly, Detweiler says. But bear in mind that opening new accounts can weaken your credit record. If you can, transfer your balances to a lower-rate card that you already own.

You might also consider a home-equity loan, which would give you a lower rate — and your interest will be tax-deductible. If your home's value has slid precipitously, though, you might not be able to get one. And if you start using your credit cards again, you'll find yourself with even more debt.

3. Pay off cards with the highest interest rate first, and pay more than the minimum.

Suppose you have a $10,000 credit card bill that charges 30%. Your minimum payment is 4% of your total, or $400, and $250 of that payment goes to interest. Even after sending $400 to your credit card company, your balance falls by just $150. (The same payment to a card that charged 12% would reduce your balance by $300.)

The faster you get rid of your high-cost debt, the better, so try to pay more than the minimum. One good source of money: your tax return. The average taxpayer received a $2,225 refund from Uncle Sam last year. That kind of money could go a long way toward paying down your debt.

In addition, the government wants you to spend your economic stimulus payment — anywhere from $600 to $1,200 — at the mall. But your own private economy might receive more stimulation if you used your tax refund to pay off your credit card bill, particularly if you have a card that charges 20% to 30% or more.

Don't limit yourself to windfalls. Even if you can afford to direct only $20 extra a month toward your debt, you'll eventually save thousands in interest and pay off your debt faster.

4. Save. Many people sink into credit card troubles because of unexpected expenses: Your car dies, your furnace malfunctions, your health insurance refuses to pay a big bill. Your first priority, of course, is to pay your credit card. But putting even $10 a week into a savings account might spare you from having to reach for plastic in an emergency.

5. Get help. If you find it hard to craft a budget and stick to it, or you just need a second opinion about how to get out of debt, consider using a non-profit credit-counseling service. Bankruptcy law, in fact, requires you to do so before seeking protection from creditors.

But choose your counselor carefully — some do more harm than good. You can find a list of state-approved credit-counseling organizations at www.usdoj.gov/ust. Many credit unions and military bases offer free credit help. Or you can call the industry trade group the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at 800-388-2227.

5 steps to avoid digging yourself deeper

1. Paying off one card with another. Don't even think about it.

If you have no way to pay off your credit card, it's time to call your credit card company and try to work out a payment schedule.

2. Tapping your retirement account. Talk about expensive money. You'll owe taxes on the entire amount you withdraw from a 401(k) or deductible IRA, plus a 10% early-withdrawal penalty, if you're under 591/2.

Keep in mind that in the worst-case scenario — bankruptcy — your retirement plans would generally be shielded from creditors.

3. Paying off low-interest debt. It's noble, of course, to be debt-free. But if you have a loan that charges 6% interest or less, you shouldn't worry too much about it — unless, of course, the payments are onerous for you. Concentrate on the loans with the highest interest rates first.

4. Using scammy credit-repair firms. Some credit-counseling agencies prey on the desperate. They promise to fix your credit report and enable you to obtain car loans and mortgages. Typically, they demand upfront fees for services that people could do themselves — or services that they don't perform.

Many banks and creditors refuse to even deal with these credit-repair firms, which means you end up losing your upfront money right from the start. You wind up with less money and the same debt.

The Federal Trade Commission offers sound advice on credit-repair companies at www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/credit/repair.shtm.

It also provides detailed information on how to repair your credit.

5. Giving up. In extreme cases, you might have to seek bankruptcy protection and start over.

But if you're willing to make a plan, take some time and work at reducing your debt, you can.