Take Steps to Reduce Debt

Looking for some relief from the stress of the recession? Jaime Zimmerman suggests ways to lessen your debt and keep financial independence.

Looking for some relief from the stress of the recession? Jaime Zimmerman suggests ways to lessen your debt and keep financial independence.

Every day, we hear about the sour condition of our economy. We’re in a recession, or worse, and no one seems to know how long we’ll be stuck here. We’re experiencing a credit crunch and plummeting housing prices. Some of America’s biggest and most well-known companies have filed bankruptcy or been snatched up in order to avoid failure. The world seems to have changed over-night and the clouds aren’t parting quite yet. What does this mean to us on Main Street?

Many companies are tightening their belts, and often that means laying workers off and foregoing pay raises. And there’s the heavy toll the markets have taken on our investment portfolios and retirement accounts. Many of us had plans for retirement, and now we’re calculating how many more years we’ll be working. If you’re lucky enough to be young, you have a lot of time for your financial wounds to heal. If you’ve already retired, you’re likely worried about your cash flow and income. Admittedly, there is probably a great opportunity to make healthy returns over the coming decade given the depressed prices we currently have in our markets. But it’s still hard to commit more money to what’s been a failing proposition.

There are, however, some things we can all do to get our financial houses in order. Primarily, we can reduce our debt and our spending. If we run our household like a business, we can give ourselves the best chance to weather these tough times. First, some statistics:

1. Some 40% of American families spend more than they earn. (10 Proven Strategies, John Hancock Funds, LLC)

2. The average wealth of a 50-year-old is less than $40,000. (bankrate.com, March 1, 2006)

3. Average U.S. consumer debt, excluding mortgages, is over $21,900 per household. (SmartMoney, Surviving Debt, Aug. 8, 2007)

4. About 60% of active accounts are not paid off monthly (bankrate.com, March 1, 2006)

5. 23% of Americans admit to maxing out a credit card. (bankrate.com, March 1, 2006)

Believe it or not, with such turmoil often comes opportunity. To stimulate the economy, the Federal Reserve has aggressively lowered interest rates. This could be a great time to consolidate your debts, pay off some of those high-rate credit cards and lower your cost of living. If you’re able to refinance your mortgage to a lower rate, that will help too.

Paying off your credit card debt and ridding yourself of those payments is one of the most effective ways to get back on solid financial footing. Even in normal market conditions, investments likely can’t make the returns that credit cards charge you. If you have a good record of making payments to your credit card company, call and ask if they’ll lower your interest rate. If they won’t, look into other card providers with lower rates. Some even offer 0% interest for a limited term but there are restrictions. Be sure to read the fine print. Always try to pay the entire balance by the due date. If you can’t, then at least make extra payments until you’ve paid off the card. Once you aren’t saddled with monthly payments, your cash flow will improve and you can use the extra money for savings or chipping away at the next debt hovering over you, like your car and college loans or your home equity and mortgage.

Finally, remember to be kind to yourself. When you’ve accomplished your goal of reducing a debt or paying off a nagging bill, treat yourself. Go out to dinner or buy yourself a small gift. BUT DON’T CHARGE IT