Lawmakers have several ideas for how to get us out of this financial mess: buy only ‘American,’ borrow more from other countries, and, of course, throw more money into the economy with a $800 billion stimulus package that’s supposed to create new jobs and help us see some debt relief.
True, it will take years for us to see any real change but there are three things we can do in the short-term that may have an immediate effect on our personal finances:
1. Pay down credit card debt.
The background: Pulling out the plastic to buy anything and everything we want is part of the overspending that got us into this mess. Credit card debt is such a problem that eight out of 10 Americans polled by CreditCards.com don’t want to openly discuss just how much they owe. Some debt relief companies report clients who have upwards of $100,000 in credit card debt and as many as 10 credit cards.
How to do it: Make a list of all your debts from the highest interest card to the lowest interest one. Pay more than the minimum each month on the one with the highest interest until it’s paid off. Then tackle the next card on your list and repeat this debt reduction process until all of your cards are paid off. If the fix isn’t that simple, seek out the help of a professional counseling service, get on a debt management plan, or consider consolidating your debt.
2. Adopt a cash-only mentality.
The background: Paying with cash used to be the norm that our parents and grandparents grew up with. Their homes may have looked straight out of “That 70s Show” and not like the modern updated homes we’re used to seeing on HGTV, but everything in the house was typically paid in full, sometimes over a period of several months until it could come out of layaway.
How to do it: Leave your credit cards at home and carry cash instead. Before you head to the store, determine how much you’re going to spend and take that amount out of the ATM. This will also help you stick to a budget. It’s important to only buy things that you can afford and if you don’t have enough money to buy something right away, get it the old-fashioned way and save up until you can buy it outright.
3. Adjust the terms of your mortgage.
The background: Buying a house meant so much to some of us that we agreed to buy more house than we could truly afford. We were so eager to sign on the dotted line and move in that we didn’t pay attention to key phrases in our contract signaling that our mortgage terms were less than homeowner friendly, including “pre-payment penalty,” “adjustable rate mortgage,” and “interest-only” payments.
How to do it: Talk to your lender if you’re among the 61,347 Bay Area homeowners who are currently in default on their homes. Lenders may be willing to negotiate with you rather than risk losing thousands more on the home once the property enters foreclosure. Bay area home values, pummeled by rising foreclosures and the effects of the recession, lost $202 billion in value in 2008, according to Zillow.com. With lenders standing to lose more money, your lender may be willing to offer you debt consolidation, a deferred payment plan, or a loan modification.