BY BEV O’SHEA
Sometimes the first sign of debt trouble is that you ignore the signs: You don’t know what your credit card balances are, for example, or you just don’t open statements.
Your subconscious usually tells you when you’re in a danger zone, says Beverly Harzog, author of “The Debt Escape Plan.” It may whisper at first, with headaches or sleepless nights. Other times it hollers. You can’t stretch your paycheck to cover all your bills, or you avoid money discussions with your partner.
But facing your debt is the first step toward mastering it.
7 SIGNS OF TROUBLE
Indicators that your debt is a problem:
—Your credit card balances keep rising. It’s best to pay credit cards in full every month. Next best is paying enough to whittle down balances over time. If your balances are growing, your financial worries are, too.
—At least one credit card is maxed out. There’s one exception: Don’t count a balance-transfer card you’re using for debt consolidation — provided you have a plan to pay it off while the interest rate is in the low introductory period.
—You can’t pay more than the minimums on your credit cards.
—You can’t afford to save for an emergency fund. Emergencies happen, so you need at least a small reserve to cover them. If a car repair would mean you couldn’t cover your regular bills, something needs to change.
—You’re late on bills because you didn’t have enough money on the due date.
—You applied for credit and were rejected. That means creditors or card issuers see reason to believe you can’t or won’t repay money you borrow.
—You’re getting offers for credit cards for people with damaged credit — and you thought you had good or excellent credit. That’s a sign that something is tanking your credit, Harzog says.
If any of these apply, it’s time to take an honest inventory of your debt.
“I remember having a lot of headaches . even nausea when I sat down and faced the music,” Harzog says. But she went on to wipe out more than $20,000 in debt in two years.
HOW TO GET OUT OF DEBT
Simply checking for these warning signs means you’ve taken the first step. If one or more apply to you, keep moving along this path to turn your situation around.
Take inventory: First, make a list of every debt you have, along with the interest rate and minimum payment. Then, list your income and expenses for each month to assess your financial obligations.
Cut ruthlessly: Find where you can trim expenses. Any extra money you can put toward debt payments will get you debt-free that much faster.
Do the math: Going all in, can you successfully pay off this debt? If it’s more than 50 percent of your income, bankruptcy may be a more reasonable path to re-establish at least modest financial health. Schedule a free consultation with a bankruptcy attorney and a nonprofit credit counselor for assistance.
Pick a plan: If a do-it-yourself approach is within reach, choose a repayment method you’ll actually use. Two popular ones:
— Debt avalanche: Focus all extra payments on the debt with the highest interest rate until it’s paid, then move on to the next highest. This can save you money by wiping out your costliest debt first.
— Debt snowball: Start with your smallest balance and work up to the largest. The early victories can keep you motivated.
You can combine any payoff strategy with debt consolidation , which rolls several credit card balances into one debt at a lower interest rate. If you qualify for a balance transfer card or personal loan, it could help you pay off the debt sooner and for less money overall.
Track your progress and celebrate milestones: Rewarding yourself can help you stay motivated to pay down the debt, but don’t go overboard. Think picnic in the park rather than five-star restaurant meal.
This article was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet . Email staff writer Bev O’Shea: firstname.lastname@example.org . Twitter: @BeverlyOShea .
NerdWallet: How to consolidate credit card debt
National Foundation for Credit Counseling
National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys
Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.