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How to Keep Your Debt Under Control

UPDATED: November 14, 2011

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The surest way to keep your debt under control is not to spend more than you can afford. But in order to achieve debt control, you need to know how much you have to spend and where your money goes.

In other words, you need a budget, or if you prefer, a spending plan.

Most people don’t like budgets. Budgets are constricting. They take spontaneity out of spending and make you pay attention to where your money goes. But without a budget, or a plan, you don’t know how much you have to spend or where you are spending it, so get started.

Even if you seek help, you have to do the basics:

  1. List your expenses. All of them. Do it daily, as you spend. Be sure to include the daily double lattes, the cleaning, the stamps used to pay bills, the newspaper, the gasoline, the bus fare. Everything. Add up the daily expenses so you know what you spend each week. Add in your mortgage, utility, phone, credit card and loan payments so you know what you spend each month. Precisely, not just an estimate.
  2. Analyze what you spent by category: good debt (mortgage and student loans), bad debt (much of your credit card spending falls in that category), and things you can’t avoid (taxes, utilities, food and other cost of living expenses).
  3. Figure out what you owe and what it costs you. This means listing everything from mortgage and car loan to each credit card by balance and interest rate.

That exercise, done honestly—and if you don’t, you re only fooling yourself—should show you where you can begin cutting back on what you spend, freeing up some money to start paying down the debt. Little things add up. The $4 lattes cost $80 or more a month, the daily $5 (if you’re lucky) sandwich another $100.

It should also be a guide for your budget, or, if you prefer, spending plan. If you need help, now is a good time, whether from a financial advisor or consultant (and be sure to check out the credentials and fees ahead of time) or one of the many books available from your local library.

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