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Create a true partnership.

Amy and her husband have an all-too-familiar dynamic: He makes most of the money, and she makes ends meet. When we talked, Amy would often say, "Oh, I've been meaning to look into that." Never once did she mention what Tom was handling. Fixing household finances takes time and should be a joint affair: Couples must tackle the to-do list and pay bills together.

Focus on needs and scale back on wants.

In less than half an hour of scouring her family's spending habits, Amy and I found $700 in monthly savings—more than enough to close their $600 shortfall. We agreed the family could no longer afford to spend $200 on movies and restaurant meals or shell out $30 for assorted gifts. Next, we decided Amy needs to be more frank with her kids about the family's situation—and require the two oldest (who are teenagers) to contribute to the nearly $200 cell phone bill. (Here's how to talk to children about money.) Finally, I knew how important it was for Amy and Tom to tithe, but I noticed they were donating 10 percent of their gross income. She agreed they could contribute based on their take-home pay instead, freeing up $250 a month.

Work harder—and smarter.

If Amy shifted two hours of her day from duties like carpooling (the kids can bike or take the bus) and volunteering to working at her nail salon, she'd have an extra $1,200 a month in gross income. Right around the time we spoke, Amy decided she needed to quit one of her part-time jobs (a terrific first step) to devote more energy to her business, which provides the greatest earning potential.

Sell stock to pay off debts.

The couple have $25,000 in stock options from one of Tom's previous jobs. But they also owe the IRS about $14,500 in back taxes (which they are diligently paying in $250 monthly installments), and they've racked up $13,000 in unpaid credit card balances. Amy agreed to sell the stock to pay off the IRS debt and to settle with the card issuers. Because she and Tom are already so behind on payments (and their credit has taken a hit), they should wait six more months—to show they simply don't have the ability to pay—before contacting the companies to offer a deal: If the balances owed are reduced by 50 percent, Amy will send in the full amount ASAP. This approach may sound risky, but it's exactly what would happen if they worked with a legitimate debt management service.

Next: A manageable way to build an emergency savings fund

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