By Jean Chatzky with Arielle McGowen
August 03, 2009
Pretty much everyone is trying to stretch their limited bucks. Most of us are also juggling debts, whether it's a mortgage, student loans, credit cards—or all three.
Debt certainly isn't always a bad thing. A mortgage can help you afford a home. Student loans can be a necessity in getting a good job.
Both are investments worth making, and both come with fairly low interest rates. But when you have more debt than you can handle, particularly when it's high-interest credit card debt, it weighs on your mood, your health and your relationships.
Yet you can get out of the debt hole and, just as importantly, learn to manage the stress.
"With financial problems, there's no easy way out, but there are steps you can take, and as long as you keep moving, you're going to move in a better emotional direction," says Gerri Detweiler, co-author of the new e-book Reduce Debt, Reduce Stress: Real Life Solutions for Solving Your Credit Crisis. Be Specific Exactly how much debt do you have, and how much money can you put toward paying it down each month? Add up your credit card balances, then track your expenses for about a month, taking stock of every dollar that goes out of your wallet. It will be easier to see what can be eliminated.
Put extra money toward the card with the highest interest rate while paying the minimums on the others.
When to Seek Help It's possible your debt load is so large, you just can't manage it. Your monthly income won't allow you to make payments while keeping up with other expenses and putting food on the table. If that's the case, don't just tread water.
"There isn't one solution that fits everyone. Credit counseling agencies will recommend credit counseling; bankruptcy attorneys will recommend bankruptcy. It's important to understand what your options are," Gerri says.
My suggestion? Start with a credit counseling agency, which you can find through the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. A savvy counselor should be able to put you on a debt management plan that will have you out of debt in three to five years.
If a credit counselor can't help—they can't if your income won't support repayment in less than five years—consider bankruptcy or a debt settlement. But be cautious. If you have just one or two credit cards, it's possible to settle on your own and avoid the high fees charged by debt settlement firms. Talk It Out Making progress doesn't mean you're no longer feeling weighed down. Kathleen Hall, founder of the Stress Institute, suggests setting up a time each week for everyone in a family to sit down and talk about finances.
If you have children, be honest about how you're feeling without scaring them, and challenge them to find creative ways to help save money. One child can be in charge of making sure the lights are off when no one is in a room; another can help look for coupons.