Find Freedom From Debt


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There are no quick fixes, but there are ways to gain control over bad credit-spending habits.

Many years ago, I read in a financial self-help book that if I had a problem with credit card spending, I should put the card in a bowl of water and freeze it. The idea was that it would be such a hassle to thaw it out, you'd have enough time to thoughtfully consider the purchase and avoid impulse buying.

Nice thought—in theory, that is. But here's a word of advice. If you have to thaw that card, don't put it in the microwave because it will (1) demagnetize the card and (2) melt the card into a misshapen mess.

Don't ask me how I know these things; I just did some, uh, research! Yes, that's it! I did research to discover these unusual facts in case you ever wanted to use plastic instead of paper money and you had all your credit cards on ice.

The best advice is to improve your financial health through plastic surgery—that is, by cutting up those cards.

My husband and I did it. We developed discipline through the "spend less, save more" approach, and we're in a completely different financial place than we were when we lugged around $40,000 in consumer debt.

The average consumer carries the largest percentage of his or her debt in credit cards—even more so than in a mortgage or car loan. You can cut spending in these areas, but the primary place most families need to look is at the thin piece of plastic in their wallets.

The Quick-Fix Fantasy 

Your email inbox is probably flooded daily with promises from the debt-consolidation industry that make claims such as "Debt relief is just a click away!"

Here are red flags that should go up when you consider consolidating your credit card bills:

1. Promises, promises. Some companies make claims that they will negotiate lower interest rates and reduce your monthly payments in one easy step. However, many of these debt consolidators build in a fee, usually 10 percent, as part of the monthly payment you make to them.

It's not worth paying someone else to do what you can do yourself. Go to the MSN Money website, and find out how to consolidate your debts.

2. Easy-does-it loan. Some consolidators might entice you with the ease of obtaining a debt-consolidation loan but could end up charging you more interest than you're paying now. You might end up with lower payments, but you'll pay more over a longer period of time.

3. Balance-transfer trick. You might be drawn by offers for low-interest cards, but the low rates generally last only a few months. Then you have to switch cards again to find another low interest rate.

This activity is often negatively interpreted on your credit report. If and when the latest low-interest card will not approve you, you are left paying the higher interest on the card you are holding.

If you've already made such a switch, formally close the new accounts and ask the credit card company to mark the account "closed at the customer's request." Otherwise, it will appear that the creditor closed your account—which would make you look like a poor risk.

Decide right now that you will apply all extra monies to paying down this debt. Use all unexpected income—an inheritance, a tax refund, overtime pay, an employment bonus, a pay raise—toward debt reduction.

The Best Moves 

These are a few of the best debt-consolidation options. Some of them may be a perfect fit for you:

1. Home-equity loan. This is an obvious choice that should be used with great restraint. The primary advantage is that it tends to carry low interest rates, and the interest you pay is tax-deductible (check with your tax specialist yearly).

But you will have to pay an origination fee that ranges from $75 to several hundred dollars, plus the cost of an appraisal and title insurance, so be sure it is worth it.

2. Refinancing a home. In a "cash out" refinancing option, the property owner refinances the entire loan for more than the property is worth and uses the extra cash to pay off credit cards. The primary disadvantage of this approach is that you are stretching your mortgage over 15 or 30 years.

The total interest cost can be pretty large, so you would need to keep two things in mind: (1) you would do this only once; and (2) you would concentrate on paying extra every month toward the principal, thereby shaving as much as a decade's worth of interest off your loan.

3. Refinancing a car. This is a secured loan, and you can borrow on it. But you need to calculate whether you will run out of car before you run out of car debt. It's very difficult to buy a new car when you owe more than your present car is worth.

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