If you've identified a problem in the area of personal debt, you'll need to set about remedying the situation. Here are easy steps to regaining financial control:
1) Seek help. If you're not sure how to proceed, or you're feeling too overwhelmed to act for yourself, call a non-profit credit counseling program for advice and assistance in working with your creditors to set up a repayment plan. Consumer Credit Counseling Service has offices throughout the US. Call 1-800-388-CCCS, 24 hours a day, for an office near you. You can also find information about debt problems from your local church, library or bank. Look for information on-line as well.
2) Contact your creditors. As soon as you're aware you won't be able to make a payment, contact your creditors. Creditors are more likely to work with you if they're contacted before the payment is actually overdue. Debt collectors are trained to solve payment problems, so don't be afraid to be honest with them about your financial situation. Stay calm. If you commit to paying the bill by a certain date, be sure you follow through on that commitment. The creditor won't be likely to work with you again if you don't keep your payment promises. If you can't make your minimum monthly payments, write to each creditor individually and see if you can work out smaller regular monthly bills. Be sure to explain to them why you fell behind in your bills, your current income, your other financial obligations and the exact amount you can pay them each month.
3) Cut up all credit cards and send them back to the issuing companies immediately. Officially close all credit accounts. The temptation when you start seeing lower balances on your accounts could lead you to charge the credit limits right back up again if the accounts remain open. Don't take out anymore loans or open any new credit accounts until back bills are paid in full.
4) Set a frugal budget and live within it. It's usually easier to decrease spending than increase income. Don't make any purchases above and beyond the absolute basics until you've made some headway in catching up on your back bills. Consider selling assets to find more money for your debt repayment. Even just holding a large garage sale can sometimes generate enough money to help pay an immediate bill or two.
5) Prioritize debts. Mortgages, child support and any debt that has gone to a collection agency is a priority. After you've identified the first priority debts, look for the credit companies that are charging you the most interest.
6) Pay each creditor something. No matter how small the amount you're able to pay, it will show good faith on your part as you try to negotiate payment arrangements.
7) Track personal spending. It's important to identify any holes where your money is draining out. Keep a detailed record for one month of every expenditure, no matter how insignificant. Little expenses on a regular basis add up quickly. Carry a small notebook with you and write down every single purchase. Now you'll know where your money's going.
8) Plug up any holes discovered from the spending record.
9) Plan ahead for annual expenses (i.e.: insurance, car licenses, medical deductibles, etc.).
10) Set long term financial goals. After setting concrete, definite goals for future financial health, make all current financial decisions with your future well-being in mind. Keep the end result in mind — debt-free living!
–Portions of this article were excerpted and adapted from A Simple Choice: A Practical Guide to Saving Your Time, Money and Sanity, by Deborah Taylor-Hough (Champion Press, 2000). Used with permission