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How to Manage Debt

3 minute read

Learn how to manage debt

High debt and misuse of credit cards make it tough to save for retirement. Money that goes to pay interest, late fees, and old bills is money that could earn money for retirement and other goals.

How much debt is too much?

While debt isn't necessarily bad, too much of it is. Add up what you pay monthly in car loans, student loans, credit card loans, personal loans – everything but your mortgage. Divide that total by the money you bring home each month. The result is your debt ratio. Try to keep that ratio to 10 percent or less. Total mortgage and non-mortgage debt should be no more than 36 percent of your take-home pay.

The difference between good debt and bad debt

Yes, there is such a thing as good debt. That's debt that can provide a financial pay-off. Borrowing to buy or remodel a home, pay for a child's education, advance your own career skills or buy a car for getting to work can provide long-term financial benefits.

Bad debt is when you borrow for things that don't provide financial benefits or that don't last as long as the term of the loan. This includes borrowing for vacations, clothing, furniture or dining out.

Debt red flags

  • Borrowing to pay off other loans
  • Creditors calling for payment
  • Paying only the minimum on credit cards
  • Maxing out credit cards
  • Borrowing to pay regular bills
  • Being turned down for credit

Two important things you can do today

Avoid high-interest rate loans.

Disregard loan solicitations that come in the mail, pawning items for cash, and payday services in which people write postdated checks to check-cashing businesses.

Rolling over a payday loan every two weeks over the course of a year can run up interest charges of over 600 percent! While the Truth-in-Lending Act requires lenders to disclose the cost of your loan expressed as an Annual Percentage Rate (APR), it is up to you to read the fine print telling you exactly what the details of your loan and its costs are.

The key to recognizing just how expensive these loans can be is to focus on the total cost of the loan – principal and interest. Don't just look at the monthly payment – it may be small but it adds up over time.

Handle credit cards wisely

Credit cards can serve many useful purposes, but they can also be misused. An example is making only the minimum payment each month. On a $2,000.00 balance with a credit card charging 18% interest, it would take 30 years to pay off the amount owed. Multiply that by several credit cards and there’s trouble. Here are some additional tips for handling credit cards wisely:

  • Keep only one or two cards, not the usual eight or nine.
  • Don't charge big-ticket items. Find less expensive loan alternatives.
  • Shop around for the best interest rates, annual fees, service fees, and grace periods.
  • Pay off card balances each month, or at least pay more than the minimum.

Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself in severe debt. A credit counseling service can help you set up a plan to work with your creditors and reduce your debts. We partner with BALANCE to offer our members assistance with financial management and budgeting.

Your perspective is important to us and helps us see where we’re hitting the mark and where there might be areas to improve.