Q: I'm tired of living paycheck to paycheck each month. I would like to be more financially secure, and even create some savings, especially an emergency fund. But I have so much debt, that I feel overwhelmed and don't know where to start. Does the BBB have any tips on where to begin?
A: It's great that you want to fix your financial situation, and although it will not be easy, it's not impossible. Knowing that you need some help is a great step forward. April is Financial Literacy Month and Better Business Bureau has information on how to be a savvier consumer. But before people can become better spenders and better savers, some of us may have to dig ourselves out of debt first.
It's easy to fall into debt -- especially if you are supporting a growing family. But just because you're in debt now doesn't mean you have to stay in debt. You are taking the first step to dig yourself out of debt by reading this action plan. Whether you're in serious trouble or just want to pay down some bills, take these steps in this action plan to get going.
1. Complete a personal financial inventory. Knowing how you got into debt will help you find the right solutions to get out. Find out what you have, what you owe and how much you are spending. This will help you figure out how you can trim your spending in some areas to find the money you need to repay debts.
2. Put away the plastic. If you find yourself over your head in debt, stop using your credit cards immediately.
3. Call your creditors before skipping payments. If you think you can't make a payment, call the business you owe money and ask for more time. If you make the call before you miss a payment, the business often will be more willing to work with you.
4. Consider working with a nonprofit debt counseling service. You can contact the National Foundation for Credit Counseling to find a credit counselor in your area. Visit NFCC.org or call 800-388-2227.
5. Pay your high interest rate debt first. Work on paying down the credit card or loan that charges the highest interest rate first. Set a goal to pay a specific amount toward that debt each month, while putting minimum payments toward your other credit cards or loans. When that high interest debt is paid off, apply the extra money to the debt with the next highest rate. In time, you'll pay off your debts and save big bucks in interest.
6. Mail your payments early. When paying your credit card bill by mail, send your payment several days before the due date (at least a week). This is very important. Credit card companies typically require that payments be posted to your account by a certain time of day on your due date or they will charge you a late fee. Take extra care to mail your credit card payments early, so they can be posted to your account on time. When making the payment over the Internet or by phone, find out when the payment will post to your account. Some companies wait a day or two before posting your payment, so you need to make the payment a day or two before the due date. Late payments are expensive (often $30 or more) and hurt your credit history.
7. Avoid settlement or credit repair scams. There is no such thing as an easy fix to getting out of debt or repairing a bad credit record. Stay away from services that require up-front fees or "voluntary contributions," guarantee they can make your debts go away or promise you will pay only pennies on the dollar. Be careful if they tell you to stop communicating with creditors, require personal information and credit card information before sending you information on what they do or want to put you into a debt management plan before analyzing your situation.
8. Consider bankruptcy a last resort. Some people think bankruptcy is the only option when their debts become too much to manage. If you are considering bankruptcy, talk with a financial counselor first. Bankruptcy is a last resort -- it has long term consequences and may not provide the debt relief you seek.
Jim Winsett is president of the Chattanooga Better Business Bureau.