As years passed and debt mounted, I realized my odds of marrying a rich baroness were slightly less than winning the lottery. Sadly, it was time to get serious about digging out of debt.
If you’re wondering where to begin, you are not alone. Wages have stagnated and expenses risen during and after the Great Recession. According to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, mortgage debt has more than doubled. For low-income households, debt has increased from one-fifth their income in 2007 to one-half by 2013.
That’s a lot of red ink. So much that lot of consumers don’t even want to look at it. Buck up, people. You can’t win a battle if you don’t know what you’re fighting.
Here are a few ways to get even, or at least closer to even:
You can get a copy of your credit report at annualcreditreport.com. That report will name everyone you owe. List the total debt owed to each creditor along with the interest rate. Include the monthly minimum payment.
Some financial advisers recommend paying off the smallest debts first, since it builds momentum and motivation. But mathematically, it makes more sense to attack debts with higher interest rates.
Many creditors have leniency programs for job loss, medical emergencies, death or extended illness in the family, etc. If you’ve experienced a financial hardship, contact the creditor to see if you qualify for a lower interest rate.
If you don’t want to deal with them, consider working with a nonprofit credit counseling agency, which can devise a debt-management plan that could provide lower interest rates.
Student loan debt has skyrocketed to $1.3 trillion. If you’re still paying for your diploma, new online lenders such as Earnest, SoFi and Upstart might be able to refinance with lower interest rates.
Consolidating debt can also lower your interest rate. Explore getting a home equity loan or line of credit. I got a $25,000 home equity loan with a 3.5% interest rate to pay off $18,000 in credit card debt, and my monthly payment on the total bill dropped $100.
You should also consider transferring your debt to another credit card offering 0% interest. But read the fine print. The 0% rate usually jumps significantly after 6-12 months, so be sure you can pay off the debt in that time frame. And calculate the initial transfer fee to make sure you’ll be saving money.
Tally up your housing, transportation, utilities, groceries, child care and other fixed costs. Find out how much take-home pay you have left to throw at debt each month.
If there’s not any, try to find some. Do you need the full-service cable plan? Can you stomach homemade bologna sandwiches instead of hitting Panera or Chick-fil-A for lunch? Doing pushups and situps in the garage is cheaper than pumping iron at Gold’s Gym.
You should also try to increase your income. Work overtime if you can or pick up a second job. Delivering pizzas isn’t a dream job, but the extra cash, if applied to your debt load, will get you even a lot faster.
Once you know your expenses vs. income, figure out how long it will take to get out of debt. If it’s longer than five years, a credit counselor might advise you to file for bankruptcy.
Track your progress on a monthly basis. If you need motivation, stick a picture of your favorite vacation spot on your computer. Make a trip your reward when you finally get out of debt.
If you get a tax return, inheritance or other windfall, don’t waste it on new tire rims. Throw it at the goodies you’ve already bought and haven’t paid for.
And as painful as it is, try to stop using credit cards. They are usually what get people into debt in the first place.
Credit cards feel like Monopoly money, so use the real stuff instead. Research shows that people who buy with hard-earned cash typically spend 20% less than they did using credit cards.
Research also shows you will not win Powerball or marry an oil sheik. The good news is that if you make a debt-freedom plan and stick to it, you won’t have to.