Let’s face it: most of us are in debt. In fact, in any given month, Americans owe $594 billion to bank credit card issuers. Despite the negative connotations of the word “debt” — and the horrifying images stirred up by that staggering figure — it is important to keep in mind that not all debt is bad debt. In fact, carrying some debt can actually be a good thing. It can help you build a good credit history, which is crucial when applying for a loan or a credit card. But there is a line between good and bad. How do we know when we have crossed that line? How can we tell when we are heading for trouble with debt? And, more importantly, what steps can we take to get a handle on our debt once we realize we are in too deep? The key is to maintain control over our debt and not let it control us.
ARE YOU IN TROUBLE?
If you are unsure whether or not you are heading toward, or in, financial trouble, ask yourself these questions: Do you charge things that you used to pay for with cash, such as groceries? Are you able to pay only the monthly minimum due on your credit card? Do you hope and pray your deposit makes it into your account before checks you have written are cashed? Are you using cash advances from one credit card to pay other cards or for basic living expenses? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you could be headed for trouble.
GET YOUR CREDIT REPORT
A good way of knowing where you stand with creditors is to read your credit report. It is a good idea to know what is on your report, especially if you are planning on applying for a loan or renting an apartment. A few negative marks on your report could mean the difference between a loan with 8 percent interest and one with 15 percent interest. Even worse, you could be denied altogether. Negative marks on your credit report could also mean difficulty renting or buying a home or car. Apply for a copy of your credit report and if you see any problems, contact the lender immediately to have them cleared up.
CREDIT CARD CONSTERNATION
In order to take control of your debt, you should stop charging. You cannot get out of debt if you continue to accumulate more. Look at your bills based on their interest rates, rather than the balance due. The amount you owe does not matter very much if you are paying incredibly high interest rates. Try to pay off the card with the highest interest rate first. You can also contact your credit card company and try to negotiate down to a lower interest rate. It cannot hurt to ask — the worst thing they can say is “no.” Another option is to transfer balances from multiple credit cards to one, low-interest card. Be sure to read the fine print though. Beware of low initial rates that balloon to a high rate after a short period of time, or cards that charge a fee for the transfer. Also look out for cards that jump to, and permanently remain at, a high interest rate if you are late with a payment.
TRACK YOUR SPENDING
If you are having a difficult time getting a handle on your debt, track your spending. If you want to get out of debt, you need to know how much is coming in and how much is going out each month. And it is very easy to lose track of what you are spending. Record every penny you spend for a month or two and be diligent. You may be surprised at what you learn — your morning coffee and muffin may seem insignificant, but it adds up. After you have tracked your spending, see if there are things you can do without. Then, put yourself on a budget and develop a plan. The money you are saving from what you cut out of your budget should be put toward reducing your debt.
WHAT TO DO
If you are drowning in serious debt, it may seem too late for the above steps to help. There are other options. First and foremost, contact your creditors. Call them before they call a collection agency. Creditors appreciate your taking responsibility and will work with you to set up a payment plan you can handle. Another option is credit counseling. It is often difficult to manage debt on our own and there are low-cost, and even free, organizations that can help. Be sure to investigate the options in order to find a reputable organization. A third option is filing for bankruptcy. This should really be considered a last resort, as the outcome of filing for bankruptcy is significant. Your credit rating will be tarnished for 7-10 years, and your ability to get a credit card, buy a home, lease a car, and possibly even your ability to get a job, will be affected.
We often avoid dealing with debt because it can seem very overwhelming. The consequences of ignoring the problem, however, are much worse than facing the problem head on. Having a plan is a key step in getting control of your debt.
If you would like more information on how to manage your debt, don’t hesitate to call the Musicians’ Assistance Program at (212) 397-4802.
Matt Kudish, MSW, is a social worker in the Musicians’ Assistance Program.