The Debt Trap: How Do I Get Free?

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The Debt Trap

How Do I Get Free?

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Did you lose your job in the economic downturn after Sept. 11, 2001? Were you already out looking for a new job, a casualty of the stumbling high-tech sector? Are you a victim of the continuing wave of manufacturing jobs exiting your nation for countries with lower pay and benefit scales? Are you chronically underemployed, sitting in a go-nowhere job? Or, unlike any of these, have you been comfortably employed but lulled by the go-go decade of the '90s into spending more than you make?

If you are in any of these categories, you probably are all too familiar with debt—sometimes staggering debt. During 2001 Americans owed more than $700 billion in credit-card debt alone.

Consider a piece of timeless wisdom- "The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender" (Proverbs 22:7 Proverbs 22:7The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender.
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, emphasis added throughout). If you are in debt, you are a servant, like it or not. When King Solomon wrote the biblical book of Proverbs, it was true literally—debts were paid by the physical labor of the one who owed. Today the arrangements may be different, but the emotional burdens are not—weariness, depression, constant worry and uncertainty about the future, to name a few.

How do you get out from under the burden of debt? The keys aren't difficult to understand, but they do take commitment.

According to a survey taken by Opinion Research Corp. International of Princeton, New Jersey, and sponsored by the Consumer Federation of America and Bank of America, Americans in particular may have been sobered recently into taking a more serious look at personal debt. The survey results show that since Sept. 11, 2001, one third of Americans are more interested in personal savings, and a quarter are more interested in paying down their debts. Conversely, 36 percent were less interested in luxury purchases.

Have you considered joining those who are getting their financial houses in order? If so, a few time-tested steps can make a major contribution toward your debt-free life.

Step 1: Spend less or make more.

As a freeway commuter during the '90s, I regularly tuned in to a variety of radio financial advisers during the drive home. One crusty host had been through it all-success, failure, good times, hard times. His was the voice of practical experience. To listeners with seemingly impossible debt, his advice was predictably consistent—"work more or spend less."

Sometimes there is no gimmick, no strategy and no pain-free formula for getting out of debt. The answer is a change in lifestyle. Work more. Spend less. It may not be enjoyable, but the reward can last a lifetime.

My wife and I spent the first seven years of our marriage getting out from under the debt incurred by going to college, getting married and starting a family. For seven years we agreed to spend less. Like millions of others who chose this route, we have never regretted the decision.

You may find after examining your income and outgo that your indebtedness leaves you owing more than you make each month. Or, as someone wryly observed when looking at the month's bills, "I can't figure out why there are always days left over at the end of the money."

Making more is probably your only option. Consider a part-time job as a way of getting out from under debt. Set the goal of eliminating your current debts, and drop the second job when you reach the goal. Sometimes additional income is the only practical way to get back to zero.

Step 2: Make yourself worth more.

The spend-less-or-make-more formula doesn't address everyone's problem. What if your regular job is a dead end? You can see that your salary won't rise that much over time, but your needs will. What then? Obviously a short-term, part-time job won't solve the problem.

Consider making yourself worth more. Every job has a market value. If yours is low, why not train to do something that pays better? Consider getting the training necessary to land a better-paying job. Education may be the single biggest step you ever take to improve your financial situation.

Once you have the training and that new job, will the bigger paycheck be the solution to your financial problems? Not automatically. Making money is one thing, but managing money is another. The prosperity of the '90s lulled many people making excellent salaries into ever-increasing debt. Between 1996 and 2001, credit-card debt in America rose by 46 percent! During the decade of the '90s, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Americans'saving rate, as a proportion of disposable income, dropped from an average of 7.8 percent in 1990 to 1.0 percent during 2000. Making money isn't the same as managing money.

Considering that the average credit-card debt is more than $2,400 for every man, woman and child in the United States, managing revolving credit is probably an excellent place to start getting your financial house in order.

Step 3: Eliminate credit-card debt.

Have you ever considered how much you give away each year in credit-card interest? According to recent reports, the average American household of three owes more than $7,000 in credit-card debt. With an interest rate of 14 percent—which is middle of the road for credit cards-you give away the equivalent of a new 36-inch stereo TV or a new washer and dryer every year. If you carry a card with a 20 percent interest rate, you give away the equivalent of a new deluxe side-by-side refrigerator in annual interest.

Consumer debt allows you to have something now, when you don't have the cash, but it also makes the item cost more—often a lot more. Saving for expensive items is hard at first, but those who do it find it gets easier, and in the end you have more to show for it.

How do you start eliminating credit-card debt? If you are in deep credit-card debt because you cannot control the impulse to use the cards unwisely, then pay cash whenever you can or, better yet, save up for a purchase and pay by check when you have saved the full amount. With an interest-bearing account you will actually make a small amount of money in the interim period.

Most savvy credit-card users have already learned to play the move-money-to-the-low introductory- rate-credit-card game, but this is just a Band-Aid. Sooner or later you still have to eliminate the debt.

If you cannot control credit-card usage, stop carrying credit cards. If you can control usage it is still wise to carry only one or two, preferably those that offer a benefit such as an annual rebate on purchases or airline frequent- flyer miles. Smart credit-card users carry cards for the convenience of not having to carry cash. Even smarter, they avoid paying interest by paying the full balance due each month.

Of course, it should be mentioned that the convenience of avoiding cash can today be accomplished with a debit or check card, by which money is paid directly out of your checking account.

Step 4: Learn to budget.

The leap from getting out of debt to staying out of debt usually starts with a budget. There is no substitute for a sound balanced budget when it comes to managing money. At the same time there seems to be a natural resistance to doing it. "Why budget?" you may say. "I'm getting by. It's nothing great, but I'm making it."

A realistic manageable budget is the first step toward accumulating a positive net worth. The previous steps help you get out of debt, but budgeting helps you take the next step—staying out of debt.

Guidelines for setting up a budget are available from literally scores of sources. Check your library or the Internet. You will turn up several. One excellent workbook, Building Wealth, is available through the Federal Reserve at (800) 333-4460, extension 5354 (in the United States), or it can be downloaded from the Internet at You can also request our free booklet Managing Your Finances, which contains valuable information on setting up a family budget.

A good budget will also help you begin to build a rainy-day fund for those unforeseen emergencies that hit everyone sometime in life. Financial planners, consumer credit organizations and debt counselors consistently advise holding three to six months'worth of living expenses as a personal emergency fund. If you are currently mired in debt, this may sound like mission impossible, but you can do it. Realize getting out of debt and staying out of debt is a step-by-step process. Take one step at a time and you'll get there.

Step 5: Make God your partner.

Let me offer one more step not commonly found in guides to eradicating debt, though it is neither new nor unusual. Make God your partner. The Maker of the universe is the best financial partner you can have.

Around 500 B.C. the Jewish remnant that had returned from captivity in Babylon to rebuild Jerusalem lost its focus. God became an afterthought as these people worked hard to make a comfortable living for themselves.

God had to remind them of a great truth through the prophet Haggai: "Now therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts: 'Consider your ways! You have sown much, and bring in little; you eat, but do not have enough; you drink, but you are not filled with drink; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and he who earns wages, earns wages to put into a bag with holes'" (Haggai 1:5-6 Haggai 1:5-6 [5] Now therefore thus said the LORD of hosts; Consider your ways. [6] You have sown much, and bring in little; you eat, but you have not enough; you drink, but you are not filled with drink; you clothe you, but there is none warm; and he that earns wages earns wages to put it into a bag with holes.
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All the wealth of the last two decades of unprecedented prosperity has not created greater personal wealth for everyone. It has, as statistics clearly show, created unprecedented personal debt for many. Solomon, the richest man in the world during his day, said, "Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days" (Ecclesiastes 11:1 Ecclesiastes 11:1Cast your bread on the waters: for you shall find it after many days.
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His expression, "Cast your bread upon the waters," has become popular as a way of expressing the need to look outside ourselves and share with others. As contradictory as it may sound, learning how to get out of debt often comes in part by learning how to share. There is a surprising financial wisdom that comes by learning to look outside ourselves.

Take five steps and you can have a new walk. Most of us have learned somewhere in life how easy it is to become a slave to debt. The steps necessary to free ourselves aren't difficult to understand, but they do take commitment. Once committed to the challenge, you will find the results liberating—and the reward will be one that lasts a lifetime, usually even longer. GN