Debt Relief…A nine step plan to get you out of debt

Looking for a little debt relief. Check out this nine step plan to help you get out of debt!

Step 1: Assess the problem
Step 2: Set achievable goals
Step 3: Manage your credit score
Step 4: Track your spending
Step 5: Reduce your rates
Step 6: Sell assets, earn more
Step 7: Get help if you need it
Step 8: Pay it down — smartly
Step 9: Get ahead, stay ahead

Step 1: Assess the problem

Principle 1: Understand why you’re in debt
It’s basic psychology: If you don’t fix the underlying problem, conquering the symptoms will do you no good in the long run. You’ll repeat the same behavior and end up in the same debt hole again. The key is to know where your financial weakness is coming from.

Principle 2: Recognize how serious the problem is
Calculate how much money you have coming in each month and how much you have going out.

Step 2: Set achievable goals

Principle 1: Break down the process
Let’s say you’re trying to lose a little weight before your high school reunion two months from now. How would you approach that problem? You’d climb on the scale and see that it was teetering around 153 pounds. You’ve always weighed between 140 and 142. So you’d have a goal: to lose weight. It would be specific: 10 pounds. You’d have a time frame: two months. And you’d do the mental math: About a pound a week will get you there. Because you figured that out, you’d have a much better chance of success than if you were dieting aimlessly. The same is true if your goal is reducing debt or finding the best route to work from a new home.

Principle 2: Retrain your brain
Once you’ve got your breakdown, you need to get your brain to accept the fact that you’re going to live on a little less. How?

“You move that principle into your long-term memory by thinking about it, then talking about it, then doing it. All of a sudden, it’s a habit.

Step 3: Manage your credit score

Principle 1: Check your credit score
Order a report from Or get a close approximation with the free score simulator at the site.

Principle 2: Pay on time
The longer you go without being late, the better (represents 35 percent of your score).

Principle 3: Use less of your available credit
Aim for 30 percent. To get there, pay down balances. Don’t cancel cards, which reduces your available credit and can lower your score (30 percent).

Principle 4: Don’t apply for more cards
Every time you apply for credit, the lender pulls your score. Shopping for a mortgage or car loan won’t get you into trouble, but multiple card inquiries can lower your score 50 to 100 points (10 percent).

Principle 5: Stay loyal
Having at least one card that’s more than two years old will help your score. Once you’ve had it for more than 15 years, the benefits taper off (15 percent).

Step 4: Track your spending

To turn things around, you need to follow the money.
Here’s what you need to know:

What’s coming in?
How much will you earn this year, before and after taxes? The after-tax number is key. Budgeting to live on your gross income is a guarantee you’ll overspend.

Where is it going?
You probably have a decent idea of what you spend each month on your fixed costs. But I’ll bet you have no idea when it comes to variable items, especially those you buy for cash. So for the next month, write down everything you spend. That 75 cents a day you drop into the soda machine at work is $16.25 a month and $195 a year. It’s a plane ticket, a car payment; it’s real money.

Where should it go?
Once you know where your money is going, you can start making conscious choices about how to put it to work for you. You can put that $195 a year against the Visa bill or you can still spend it on soda. Having the information gives you control.

Step 5: Reduce your rates

Ask for a break
First, note the rates you’re now paying on your cards, whether the rates are fixed or variable, how long you’ve been a customer, how much you charge and whether you pay on time. Then pull out any attractive pre-approved balance transfer offers you’ve received and call customer service to ask for a lower rate. Respondents to a 2002 Public Interest Research Group survey reported success 56 percent of the time. The average savings: more than 30 percent.

Not sure what to say? Try Bilker’s script. “I have the following card with you and my interest rate is X percent. I got another offer in the mail from such and such bank for Y percent, but before I took it, I wanted to see if you could lower my interest rate.” If the rep says she’s not authorized to do that, say, “You and I both know that if I transfer my balance today, next week your bank is going to send me an offer to come back at an even lower rate. Why don’t you just save the bank the effort by giving me several points today?” No luck? Ask for the supervisor and repeat your request.

If your mortgage is 7.5 percent or higher and you’ll stay in the house long enough to recoup transaction costs, refinancing may be something to consider. Refinancing a car loan is even easier — and nearly free. You’re eligible, typically, if your car is less than five years old and you owe more than $7,500. You’ll really benefit if your credit rating has improved since you bought your home or your car. Finally, refinancing your student loans may free up cash at no cost. Shop around for the best discounts. Many lenders will give you a 1 percent break after you’ve paid on time for 36 or 48 months.

Finally, you could consolidate your loans via a fixed-rate home-equity loan (now averaging 6.92 percent). But many people who consolidate just pile on more credit-card debt. Consolidation is a good move only if you can resist temptation.

Step 6: Sell assets, earn more

There are only two ways to dramatically reduce debt right away: spend less (a lot less) or earn more. That can mean sacrifices.

Spend less
To make a serious dent in your debt, you need to look at the big-ticket items.
Housing: You can move to a smaller house or a cheaper locale. Or you can rent. According to, over the past three years, rents have fallen by about 10 percent, while average mortgage payments have gone up by 20 percent. You will have to pay moving costs, but you should quickly make it up with savings on repairs, on maintenance and — since renter’s coverage is much cheaper than homeowner’s — on insurance.
Transportation: How many cars are in your garage? If the answer is more than one, consider paring down. You’ll save on car payments, gasoline, insurance, parking and servicing.
Child care/education: By moving closer to her parents, Bonanni was able to replace her full-time nanny with half-day child care. Her mom was happy to babysit the rest of the time. Savings: $500 a month. If you’re footing the bill for private school, look into public school. Or apply for financial aid.

Earn more
If spending less can’t do it all, bring in more money.
Sell assets: When companies are looking to reduce debt, they sell divisions, product lines, inventory and so on. Before you part with your jewelry or your time-share, however, find out what your assets are worth. Take valuable items to a certified appraiser who is not in the business of selling things like yours. For household items, you can check eBay. If you act as your own seller, insist on cash, a cashier’s check, a money order or an electronic transfer through PayPal or a similar service. If a buyer wants time to get a cashier’s check, ask for a deposit in cash.
Moonlight: More than 7 million Americans already have second jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nearly three out of every 10 people who hold more than one job say they do so to meet household expenses or pay off debt. If you want to follow suit, clear it with your boss. You don’t want to upset your main source of income and health insurance.

Step 7: Get help if you need it

Getting help: A credit counselor
According to Catherine Williams, vice president of financial literacy for Money Management International, a Houston-based counseling agency, it makes sense to seek credit counseling if you’re using one card to pay off another, as the Longs were; if you’re taking routine cash advances; or if you’ve been denied an increase in your credit line. As with most agencies of its type, counselors sit down with consumers who can’t pay their bills, ask an hour’s worth of budgeting questions and enroll those for whom it’s appropriate in a debt-management program, or DMP. About a third of potential clients can manage on their own without a DMP, and another third are in such dire straits that bankruptcy is the only answer, Williams says. In a DMP, the credit counselor arranges for you to pay off your debts at lower interest rates. Old late fees and penalties are also waived. In exchange, you agree to stop using your cards and not apply for more credit. Each month, you make one payment to the counseling firm, which disburses your payments to your creditors. (The creditors, in turn, rebate a portion of the money to the counseling firm.) DMPs aren’t the answer to every debtor’s prayers. For starters, they’re not free: You’ll pay both an up-front activation charge and a monthly fee. Worse, the Federal Trade Commission has charged some agencies with not fully disclosing their fees, others with not disbursing money to creditors in a timely manner, and still others with enriching their boards.

Check them out before you sign up
So if you’re in the market for credit counseling, you need to be careful. Look for a not-for-profit firm that:

Belongs to the National Foundation of Credit Counselors (NFCC) or Independent Association of Credit Counselors; both require that counselors be certified.
Will assign a counselor to spend at least 45 minutes to an hour evaluating your financial situation.
Can handle all your debts.
Charges no more than $75 up front and $35 a month.

Once you find a counselor, stick with the program.

Step 8: Pay it down — smartly

A common dilemma for families struggling to repay a variety of loans is this: Should you pay your credit cards first, and in what order, or are you better off putting extra money toward, say, your mortgage or car loan? Or would it be even smarter to put extra cash into savings?

To help prioritize, consider these factors.

The cost of your debt
Credit cards are generally more expensive than car loans, which are pricier than tax-deductible mortgages, which in turn cost more than deductible student loans. So it’s typically in your interest to pay off debts in that order.

Your credit score
Choose which cards to pay first in a way that will help raise your credit score. Your best bet: Pay the cards with the biggest balances relative to your credit limit first rather than the ones with the highest rates. This will improve your “utilization ratio,” a number that tells lenders how much of your available borrowing power you’ve tapped and accounts for 30 percent of your score. The closer you are to your limits, the greater the perceived risk that you will not pay on time.

Your cumulative minimum payments
If you have cards with small balances (hundreds, not thousands of dollars), consider paying them off in full. That way, you’re no longer making nuisance payments each month for cards you don’t really use, and you free up cash that you can use to pay other debts, says Edina, Minn. financial adviser Ross Levin. You also get the psychological boost of crossing a bill off your repayment list.

Alternative investments
With credit-card rates averaging 13.8 percent recently, it’s tough to beat the return on paying off your plastic. Once you’ve wiped your Visa slate clean, however, and still have low-rate car, home and student loans, you may find it better to invest any extra money you have than to retire your remaining debt at a faster than required pace. In comparing the alternatives, bear in mind that the money you save by paying off a loan is equivalent to a guaranteed return, while there’s no assurance that a stock mutual fund, say, will make any money at all. But if you hold a stock fund for five years or more, the historical odds are good that it will pay you more in the end than you’d save in interest payments on your loan. Putting your money in a fund also gives you access to it for emergencies; you don’t have that option if you’ve already used the money to erase debt.

Step 9: Get ahead, stay ahead

Wherever you are in the process of downsizing your debt, the key to getting out of trouble and staying out of trouble is to live by some simple rules and then stick to those rules, even when you hit the snags that will inevitably cross your life. The rules are:

Always pay more than is required
Minimum payments are a credit-card company’s way of getting you to carry a single debt almost forever. If you, like the average American family, have $8,000 in card debt at a typical rate of 13.97 percent, and you pay only the minimum 2.2 percent of the balance required each month, it will take you 30 years to retire that debt and cost about $10,000 in interest. Yikes! If, instead, you keep your payments steady at $176 — the minimum payment in the first month — you’d pay one-third the interest and be debt-free in under six years.

Don’t be late
About 85 percent of issuers punish late payers with penalty rates as high as 30 percent. Some 44 percent will raise your rate even if you pay their bill on time but are late with payments on other cards. The simplest way to ensure timeliness is to pay your bills online. You can arrange reminders that tell you to put a payment into cyberspace, or set a date each month to pay automatically.

Use debit instead of credit
Today nearly one in three consumers pays with a debit card instead of credit. Smart folks. Debit cards, which draw money out of your checking account when you make a purchase, don’t allow you to overspend as credit cards do. In the scheme of things, this is a huge advantage.

Save something
Even before you’ve completely paid off your debts, start tucking away some money for the future. Instead of spending any bonuses and tax refunds, put the extra cash into savings — a down payment for future emergencies, so you won’t have to resort to plastic if trouble hits. When you get a raise, arrange a direct transfer of the additional amount in your paycheck to a savings vehicle. If you lived without the money before, you can likely get by without it now.

Practice patience
There is no magic formula involved in paying down debt — it just takes good habits and a little willpower, exercised in both good financial times and bad.

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