Do you actually know how much debt you have? Many people don't. Start by making a list of everything you owe, whether it's a mortgage, a credit card balance, student loans or even money you borrowed from family or friends. Write down:
The lender's name
The amount you owe
The term of the loan
The interest rate and fees
Then total them up. Looking at the numbers can be worrisome, but this is a positive – and necessary – first step to tackling your debt.
Paying the minimum amount due on your credit cards is one of the fastest ways to fall further into debt, and it can keep you in debt for years or decades.
If you have a credit card with a $3,000 balance at an annual interest rate of 18%, and you pay only the 2% minimum monthly payment of $60 per month, it would take you 8 years to pay off your bill. Not only that, you will have paid $5,780 by the end of the 8 years - almost double the $3,000 you thought you were spending when you made the charges.
Paying just $50 above the minimum amount due each month will make an incredible difference in how quickly you can pay down what you owe. If you pay an additional $50 per month toward your $3,000 balance for a total payment of $110 a month, you could pay off the debt in 3 years instead of 8, and save yourself over $1,800 in interest. Imagine what you could do with $100 more per month.
Reducing debt is like losing weight. You're not going to lose 50 pounds in a month. You need realistic goals in reasonable timeframes and debt works the same way. For most people, it takes years to become debt-free. This doesn't mean you have to stop enjoying your life. It's just a reminder to live within your means and be diligent about adjusting any spending habits that have contributed to the situation you are in today. Dedicating yourself to paying off what you owe and becoming debt-free will be worth the wait, with the payoff being a brighter financial future.
Are you out of your debt comfort zone? Does it seem as though you're paying too much to bill collectors and not enough for savings and the things you enjoy in life? If so, it's a good idea to figure out just how much debt you have and compare that to how much you earn. This will give you clear understanding of your financial health.
The first step is to calculate your debt load. This is the sum total of all the money you owe:
Once you have your debt load figured out, you'll want to know just how big of a burden it is. You can do this the way banks and creditors do, by calculating your debt/income ratio - the amount you owe compared to the amount you earn. It's easy:
Calculate all your monthly debt payments - including credit cards, mortgage and child support. (If you don't have fixed monthly payments, you can estimate your monthly payments at 4 percent of the total amount you owe.)
Take your gross annual wages and divide them by 12. That's your monthly income.
Take your monthly payments total and divide it by your monthly income.
Move the decimal point two digits to the right to make it a percentage. That's your debt/income ratio.
Here's an example. Let's say your monthly income is $2,000 and your monthly payments on your debt load totals $500. If you divide 500 by 2,000 you get .25. Move the decimal point two places to the right and you get 25% as your debt/income ratio.
Only you can know for sure how much debt is too much. If you're feeling a financial squeeze every month because of credit card bills, you don't need anyone to tell you you're out of your debt comfort zone - you know. As a general rule of thumb, a debt/income ratio of 10% or less is outstanding, and borrowing won't be a problem. If it's between 10 - 20%, your credit is good enough that you can probably borrow more. But once you hit 20% or above, it's time to take a serious look at your debt load. Creditors will be less likely to give a loan to someone with such a high debt/income ratio, and those that do will probably charge higher interest. Worse, if you have a debt/income ratio above 20%, chances are you'll feel a strain on your budget.
A helpful tool mortgage lenders use is called the "28/36 rule." It stipulates that your debt shouldn't exceed 28% of your gross monthly income, while your total debt service - including your house payments and utilities - shouldn't be more than 36 percent.
Mortgage companies will also compare debt load to annual income. They'll typically loan up to three times what a person makes in a year. So if a home buyer earns $30,000, they might qualify for a $90,000 mortgage.
Frequent calls from debt collectors are one sure sign that you have financial problems. If this is the case, it's time to get proactive. Talk to your creditors as soon as possible.
Here are some tips for talking with creditors:
Be cooperative, not angry.
Be prepared with a list of how much you owe.
Have all your financial records together and with you.
Listen. The debt collector might have ideas that will help you.
If you are having trouble with a particular debt collector, ask if you can speak with a different person.
After speaking to a debt collector, you may have follow-up questions or concerns. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) provides sample letters to help you communicate with a debt collector if you do not believe the debt is yours, if you would like more information about the debt, to stop the debt collector from contacting you and to specify how they can contact you. To access these letters, visit the CFPB's website.