Debt in America is as ubiquitous as baseball and apple pie.
By most counts, the average U.S. household carries more than $5,000 in credit card debt. And it’s not just spendthrifts who get in over their heads. For many, unforeseen expenses or job loss are to blame.
“When you don’t have an emergency fund, credit may be your only safety net,” says Barbara Steinmetz, a certified financial planner in San Mateo, Calif.
If your personal balance sheet is out of whack, for whatever reason, you have three options: “You can spend less, earn more, or do both,” says Gail Cunningham of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
That’s the gist of it, no doubt; but as anyone who’s ever tried to unravel the debt spiral knows, there’s a little more to it than that. Here’s how to get on track:
Step one: Assess the damage
If you haven’t already, take stock of exactly how much you owe, to whom and at what rates.
Many people with high levels of debt routinely shift the burden from one place to the next, never taking a total tally.
“It’s easy to convince yourself you don’t have a debt problem if you don’t face the numbers,” says Steinmetz. She recommends putting everything on the table, including credit cards, car loans, student loans and even the mortgage — though consumer debt should be your first priority.
Then, do three critical calculations:
How much do you owe on your credit cards and other consumer loans?
How much do you spend each year on interest?
How much of your monthly salary goes toward that debt?
Step two: Get to the root of the problem
Before you transfer your high-interest debt (again) or start thinking about tapping your retirement savings “just this once,” be honest about what circumstances or habits got you to this place.
“People put all sorts of fixes in place but avoid probing the root of the problem,” says Cunningham.
Don’t have the faintest idea where it all went? That may be the most worrisome, says Steinmetz. If you haven’t already, start tracking your spending — both to understand your weak spots and identify areas where you can cut back. You can do this the old-fashioned way — by saving receipts and plugging numbers into a spreadsheet — or with one of the many free programs available, such as Mint.com or Quicken.
Step three: Make it a team effort
Rather than make an executive decision about where to cut expenses, call a family meeting. “If it’s a joint effort you’ll have much greater results,” says Cunningham.
Everyone, including kids, should be involved with tracking the family spending and coming up with ideas for where to trim expenses. “Cutting back is almost always better than cutting out,” she adds. “I could work out a beautiful budget not worth paper the printed it’s on if you can’t stick with it.”
You needn’t necessarily tell your kids every detail of why or how much you owe, but they should understand why you need to make changes and what that entails.
“There is nothing wrong with sitting down with children and saying ‘we cannot afford it,’” says Steinmetz. Don’t think of it as depriving your kids, she says, but “teaching them the difference between needs and wants.”
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