Ask Stacy: I’m Drowning in Debt. What Can I Do?

When you’re paying out more than you’re taking in, you’re in trouble. If it’s happening to you, or someone you know, here’s a step-by-step guide for what to do.

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What can you do when your outgo exceeds your income? If the situation is temporary, you borrow. But if it isn’t, borrowing is just going to make the situation worse.

Here’s this week’s question:

I am on Social Security and my husband is on disability. We are paying out more than we take in. Our house payment is over $700 and we have over $25,000 in credit card debt plus a car payment and utility bills, groceries and gas. I have been thinking of filing bankruptcy. I cannot pay any more on my credit cards than I already pay. Do you think this would be the best way for me to go? I am 67 and my husband is 64. — Hariette

While Hariette’s plight may be depressing, based on the number of similar questions I’ve received, it’s certainly not unique.

I’m going to give you some specific steps to take should you ever find yourself in a similar situation, but first, check out the following video.

Now, here’s a simple list to deal with debt.

Step 1: Make a list of everything coming in and everything going out

If you go to the emergency room, the first thing the nurse or doctor will do is assess your situation. Only after doing this will they be able to isolate the problem and decide the best course of action.

If you’re in a cash flow emergency, same drill. Assess your situation by listing every monthly expense you have, then comparing that total with your monthly income. Do this honestly and you’re going to see — very likely for the first time — the magnitude of the problem, as well as potential solutions.

When adding up your expenses, don’t guess. Use bank and credit card statements to see exactly where your money has been going. If you use cash for a lot of your expenses, account for that as well.

Step 2: Do what you can yourself

When you go to an emergency room, you’ve already admitted you have a problem you can’t solve. While the same may be true of a cash crunch, it’s worth taking a look yourself to see if you can stem the bleeding.

There are only three ways to address negative cash flow: Reduce your expenses, increase your income, or both.

Depending on what you’re spending on, there are countless ways to spend less. This website alone has published thousands of ideas, from “30 Ways to Save on Food” to “19 Tips to Save on Entertainment.”

There are fewer ways to find more income, but there are still plenty. See stories like “8 Weird Ways to Make Extra Money” and “Is There Legitimate Work From Home?

You can also look at big expenses. For example, Hariette says her mortgage payment is more than $700, and she has a car payment. Maybe it’s time for her to dump her car for something cheaper, or downsize her house. Granted, these strategies may not work, but the point is, when you’re in trouble, everything’s on the table.

Whether you can solve the problem on your own or not, however, it still doesn’t hurt to get some outside advice.

Step 3: Get professional help

Hariette’s question to me was: “I have been thinking of filing bankruptcy. I cannot pay any more on my credit cards than I already pay. Do you think this would be the best way for me to go?”

That’s like sending an email to a neurologist saying, “I have a headache. Do you think it’s a brain tumor?”

While it’s likely bankruptcy may be a viable option for Hariette, I can’t answer her question without asking many more. Is she paying just the minimum on her debts? How high are the interest rates? Does she have savings? Has she already cut her expenses to the bone? Is there any potential to increase her income?

Choosing the correct prescription requires looking at lots of stuff and asking lots of questions. That’s why practically everyone in Hariette’s situation should seek the services of a professional, providing — and this is a biggie — the pro is trained, experienced and willing to holistically examine their situation and explore all options.

Visit an emergency room, and the doctor you meet may have graduated at the top of her class at Harvard, or barely scraped by at a state school. But while one may be smarter, both are probably competent.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case when dealing with debt professionals. There’s no standardized licensing, and the field is teeming with the self-serving, idiots and crooks.

In a post called “Where Can I Go for Help With Debt?” I explain in detail what to look for in a credit counseling agency. There’s too much to repeat here, but if I had to give a one-line answer, I’d say look for an agency that’s accredited by the Council on Accreditation and affiliated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. You can find one in seconds by visiting this page of the NFCC website.

If you want to learn more about bankruptcy, check out “Ask Stacy: When Should You File Bankruptcy?

There’s no law against talking to both a credit counseling agency and bankruptcy lawyer. In fact, talk to two or three of each. You won’t pay for initial consultations, and within hours you’re going to feel a whole lot better.

Do it now

Ever been sick, but unwilling to go to the doctor? Maybe you’re hoping the problem goes away by itself; maybe you’re afraid you’re dying and don’t want it confirmed. But after you finally go and discover the problem can be easily fixed, you feel like an idiot because you stressed yourself out for nothing.

Same with money issues. You stare at the ceiling at night, hide it from friends and family. You’re afraid. You feel like a loser. You’re depressed, anxious, maybe even suicidal.

Well, in the time it’s taken to read this article, you could have started to turn things around. Right now, at the other end of a phone line is someone who understands you and your situation. They won’t judge you or charge you.

If you end up filing bankruptcy, every credit card payment you’re now struggling to make will have been wasted, because you may not finish paying those bills anyway. And no matter what you end up doing, if it’s ultimately going to involve outside help, every stress-filled minute you delay asking for it is like hitting yourself on the head with a hammer.

Got issues? Make a call or two. Not today. Right now.

Got a money-related question you’d like answered?

You can ask a question simply by hitting “reply” to our email newsletter. If you’re not subscribed, fix that right now by clicking here.

The questions I’m likeliest to answer are those that will interest other readers. In other words, don’t ask for super-specific advice that applies only to you. And if I don’t get to your question, promise not to hate me. I do my best, but I get a lot more questions than I have time to answer.

Got any words of wisdom you can offer for this week’s question? Share your knowledge and experiences on our Facebook page.

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  • matt wilkinson

    We came to this point in our lives. The number one thing you have to do-STOP.SPENDING.MONEY. Plain and simple. Stop the excuses. Stop buying stuff. Stop going out to eat. Plan your meals and buy only what you need at the grocery store. Stop drinking juice and soda, drink water and milk. Stop driving unnecessarily. Stop going out to eat. Become a realist with your money, and you’ll see how fast you get out of debt. Seriously, it’s lightning fast.

  • Bahar

    Hello, I believe step 1 is very useful, I started with reading the book ” Accounting for Dummies” and I put it in the use by preparing a daily/monthly/yearly balance sheet for my expenses and incomes. knowing the problem is a powerful way to solve it. Thanks for the article.

  • National Debt Relief

    Nice tips for approaching a debt problem. The problem facing many baby boomers is they have limited retirement savings and are living on a fixed income just like Hariette stated. This is one reason why bankruptcy may be a better way out of debt than other professional debt relief methods such as debt settlement, credit counseling or debt consolidation. Seniors will not likely need good credit to make any high dollar purchases anymore so they don’t have to worry about the negative effects of filing bankruptcy.

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