Debt is the amount a person or entity owes to a creditor for funds borrowed. This is not just a problem for the U.S Government; it is a four-letter word in many American households. As of 2010, consumer debt in the United States approached $2.4 trillion, excluding real estate holdings. For consumers who are not careful, a useful money-management tool when handled responsibly may turn into a monster capable of wreaking havoc on individuals when abused.
Thankfully, consumers do not need to wait around for politicians in Washington, D.C., to solve Uncle Sam’s debt issues to start addressing their own situation. In many instances, reducing the cumulative burden of credit card balances, home mortgages, loans and the like boils down to a few straightforward steps:
- Give yourself a reason to say “no.” Promise yourself that if you reduce your debt burden by a certain amount or percentage, something good will happen: taking a vacation, quitting a second job, or buying something you have wanted for a while.
- Get a clear picture of what you owe, the interest rate each creditor is charging and how you are spending your money.
- Plan, prioritize, and be patient. Some people prefer to start paying off their largest or highest-interest-rate debts first. Others might opt to start by paying off smaller debts in their entirety, while chipping away at the larger, more imposing ones. “Regardless of how you approach it, you need a debt reduction plan and patience,” said FPA member Jude Boudreaux of Upperline Financial Planning in New Orleans, La. “It takes real, focused attention to get out of debt and it takes time to make progress.”
- Be resourceful. Consult with a financial adviser specializing in budgeting and debt. Also look into debt support groups locally and online. The website www.iVillage.com has an online debt support community, for example, while organizations such as Debtors Anonymous sponsor local meetings around the U.S.
- Track spending habits and tighten the screws where necessary. Rather than leaving excess funds in your checking account, use it to pay down debt. Give yourself a weekly or monthly stipend to function as a spending ceiling. For help tracking spending, check out free systems and software from organizations such as Mint.com. Or invest in systems such as First Step Cash Management.
- Watch out for profiteering debt settlement organizations that promise a lot, deliver less and charge plenty along the way. In addition, be aware of debt consolidation loans, which “relieve you of a burden without necessarily changing your behavior,” said Boudreaux.
Steps like these already appear to be helping Americans make progress against debt. According to the credit rating agency Equifax, consumer debt has shrunk to 8.2 percent, between Oct. 2008 and July 2011.