Image: Debt trap © Nicholas Eveleigh, Stockbyte, Getty Images

It seems like only yesterday that debt was in vogue and saving for any purchase, big or small, was strictly optional. You could buy a home with no money down and watch the equity grow before your eyes. Credit card debt? Just pay it off with a home-equity line of credit made possible by magically expanding real-estate values. Student loans? No worries -- that's "good" debt.

The recession and plummeting home prices put the kibosh on debt indulgence. Consumers, with prodding from credit-stingy lenders, have put themselves on a debt diet. Even so, debt levels, at about 115% of disposable income, are almost as high today as they were during the debt-crazed aughts.

Many families are still trapped in a cycle of paying the minimum on credit cards without making a dent in principal. One-fifth of U.S. homeowners are underwater on their mortgage -- meaning the value of their home is less than the amount they owe. And for many families, job loss, which often means a loss of health insurance, has led to a mountain of medical bills or a spike in credit card debt.

If you have too much debt -- or you simply want to whittle down what you owe -- try these strategies.

Credit cards

Just over a year ago, Sue and Jerry Bailey of Jackson, Mich., accomplished a daunting mission: paying off $92,000 in credit card debt. The Baileys had amassed the debt using 17 cards over a few years. "We bought things for the house. Our two daughters had weddings, and I like to buy things for my grandkids. We had a car with engine problems. Things piled up," says Sue.

"It was so easy to get credit cards at the time," adds Jerry. "It was spread out over so many cards that no one card was overwhelming. But together, they were staggering."

The Baileys signed up for a debt-management program in 2005 with GreenPath, a nonprofit debt-counseling service, which worked with their card companies to lower their interest rates and eliminate late and over-limit fees. The couple cut their expenses dramatically, even selling a car, and took on additional work to boost their income. Finally, in October 2010, they paid off the last of their balances.

The best way to tackle crushing credit card debt is to lower your interest rate while you search for ways to boost your income and reduce expenses, then use the extra cash to accelerate the payoff. If you have balances on several cards, attack the highest-rate debt first. Or you could get a psychological boost by starting with the smallest balance.

Credit card companies have stepped up offers for 0% interest on balance transfers for people with the best credit records. Eliminating the interest, even for a limited time, can help you pay off the debt much faster. For example, if you have a $10,000 balance at 18% and pay $350 a month, it will take 38 months to pay off the debt and cost $3,200 in interest. At 0% interest, you'll pay off the balance almost one year earlier. Note that balance-transfer fees typically range from 3% to 5%.

Sheila Amparano of Lomita, Calif., ran up a $17,000 credit card balance in 2008 because of medical bills and new-home expenses. She started digging out when she jumped at a balance-transfer offer that reduced her interest rate from 14% to 3.99%. After her husband picked up extra work, they boosted their payments and finally paid off the card balance in September 2011.

"Being free of credit card debt is very liberating," she says. Now they're using the $350 they had been paying on their card each month to increase their car payments.

Need extra help? A good credit-counseling agency can give you a free budget review and help you find ways to save. You can also sign up for a debt-management program to reduce your interest rates and eliminate late fees and over-limit charges. You can find a credit-counseling agency through the National Foundation for Credit Counseling or the Association of Independent Credit Counseling Agencies.