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Which number is your most embarrassing - age, weight or credit-card debt?
Surprise, it's debt, according to a poll by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. Thirty-seven percent of nearly 2,200 respondents say they would be the most red-faced to admit their credit-card balances.
Credit scores came in second on the shame scale, with 30 percent saying they would not be comfortable disclosing their number.
Consumers have fewer qualms about divulging weight and bank balances, according to the foundation. (Twelve percent find disclosing pounds the most mortifying while 10 percent say that about bank accounts.)
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And age? That bothers 1 percent of respondents. Credit experts say this doesn't surprise them.
"Credit card debt is voluntary, meaning you're not forced to use a credit card or use it to the point you can't pay the balance in full each month," says John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education for Credit Sesame, a credit management website. "To some extent people who fall into that trap feel, 'I've screwed up and it will cost me thousands of dollar in interest. That's not something I feel very proud of.' "
Consumers can eliminate this embarrassment by paying off credit-card debt - or even just take steps in that direction. It's also empowering, Ulzheimer says.
"It proves we don't need to rely on lenders to function effectively in the world of commerce," he says.
Many experts recommend paying off the cards with the highest-interest rate first, which in the long run saves you the most money.
Ulzheimer, though, suggests paying off the card with the lowest balance first - no matter the interest rate - so you see progress being made. The success of one card being paid off can encourage you to tackle the next card with the lowest balance and so on until all of them are paid off.
To improve your credit score , start by finding out what it is, says Gerri Detweiler, director of consumer education for Credit.com. An American Bankers Association survey last year, for instance, found that 56 percent of respondents didn't even know their score. "It may be better than they think," she says.
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Credit.com offers a free score developed by one of the major credit reporting firms, as well as a six-month action plan on how to improve it, she says.
The largest influence on a credit score is payment history. If you're chronically a month or so behind, that will be reflected in your score. Set up free text or email alerts from your card issuer so you know when your payment due date is approaching, Ulzheimer says.
Another big factor in scores is how much card debt you have in relation to available credit. Don't close credit cards because it will make this debt-to-credit ratio suddenly appear higher and ding your score, Ulzheimer says.
Also, don't let embarrassment prevent you from seeking help.
"It's very isolating having that debt. You feel you can't talk to anyone about it," Detweiler says. Talking to a friend or someone at a credit counseling agency or place of worship about your debt "can take an enormous burden off your shoulder."
Photo: DRB Images/iStock
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