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Household Budgets: The Secret Weapon in the War on Debt

Mar 9, 2008
Ah, America...land of the free, home of the indebted. According to CNNMoney.com, the average American household has almost $9,200 in debt. That's the average. Some have much, much more. Interest rates generally run in the mid to high teens, so counting interest and payments on other debt, such as mortgages, the average American is dealing with a heavy debt load.

So what can you, Mr. or Ms. Average American, do to get yourself out of this nasty situation? The first step, which may be the most uncomfortable, is the most critical: get your life under control!

And that means preparing a household budget.

A successful business prepares a budget. It attempts to anticipate funding needs going forward, and then does its best to stay within the budgeted amount for its expenditures. You probably have an advantage over most businesses in that you have great foresight in anticipating your financial needs. You know what you typically spend in a given month on various things such as food, clothing, utilities, and rent or mortgage. If you don't have an idea of what you spend on these things, take a look at your checking account registry, or your online checking account information. Your past financial dealings are right there for you to see.

It may also be helpful to use a financial tracking application such as Microsoft Money. You can find out more about Money at http://www.microsoft.com/money/. These types of applications are excellent for becoming more aware of where your money goes. A free online application that is designed specifically for improving your awareness of your spending patterns is http://mint.com. The application automatically labels many of your expenses and lets you classify expenses any way you want. One unique feature of the site is that it lets you compare your spending to the spending habits of people in any city, state, or nationwide.

Just becoming aware of how you spend your money will greatly increase your power. You will likely find yourself becoming less prone to wasting money once you develop this awareness. Once you have a handle on where you money goes, the next step is controlling where it goes. And for that, you need a budget.

The first items in your budget should be the necessities - expenses that are not optional. These would include things like your house payment or rent, electricity, water, car payments, gas so you can get to work, and food. Many financial experts recommend that you pay yourself before paying anyone else, and by that they mean you should take 10% (or however much you can afford) and put it in savings or an investment account. However, if you don't have a roof over your head or food in your stomach, then saving is a moot point. So for purposes of creating your first realistic budget, I recommend that first you take out the necessities. Necessities, of course, vary greatly from the mind of one person to the next, but think of it in terms of BARE necessities - things you absolutely have to have to survive.

If you're really, really serious about getting out of debt, you might want to take a hard look at those car payments. If you could get by with something less, and you're not "upside down" (meaning you owe more than the car is worth), it probably makes a lot of sense to sell and downgrade. It will likely save you some money on a monthly basis, and may even put some immediate cash in your pocket.

Next, take out 10% for your savings. If you can't afford 10%, allocate SOMETHING. But strive for the magic 10%. It is also recommended that you allocate another 10% for charity. This may be an item you leave off until last, but many good things happen to those who are willing to give away some part of their income with nothing expected in return.

After savings and possibly funds for tithing, factor in your debt payments. Yeah, this is when you start to feel the pain. There are steps you can take to help ease the situation, such as debt consolidation. Another strategy is to pay off your debts in ascending order of size; i.e., pay off your smallest debts first, as fast as you can. As debts are paid off, add the amounts you were spending on those debts to what you pay to service larger debts. It's a snowball effect, whereby over time you end up paying larger and larger amounts on your biggest debts in order to get them paid off faster.

Next, factor in your non-necessities. This is where you really have to take a hard look at your life. Are you spending too much money on entertainment? Alcohol? Clothes? Fancy cars (as discussed above)? If you are serious about getting out of debt, then you've got to scale down these types of expenses. Just becoming aware of how much you spend on non-necessities may shock you into action. You should budget for these types of expenses, but cut them back, and allocate the remainder for debt repayment.

The final step in preparing your budget is to write down your income, and make sure everything balances out. You can't spend more than you make (that's probably how you ran up all that credit card debt to start with). If your expenses are too high, start cutting back on the non-necessities. In the end, you'll have a nice, balanced budget.

Once your budget is in place, you've got to find a way to stick to it. One recommended strategy is to use a cash system. The problem with the way money is handled today is that it's just too easy to spend it. Just whip out your debit card. No cash required. No check book and no ledger entry required. But you quickly lose track of how much you're spending. The solution is to allocate your budget requirements into cash categories. Literally put cash into envelopes every month for various categories of expenses. You will be less likely to spend money needlessly if you literally see your pile of cash getting smaller. And you will have much more clarity about your financial situation.

If you follow these steps, it can have a profound impact on your life. You can get out of debt quicker, take control of your finances, and feel much better about yourself. It's all up to you. And it all starts with a budget.
About the Author
ClearOne Debt Relief is a full-service debt management company providing debt settlement services such as credit card debt relief to hundreds of thousands of customers. We help people cut their debt in half, lower their monthly payment, and get out of debt in as little as 24 months.
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