10 solutions to a personal credit crisis

The economy is in a financial crisis, but what about you? Here are some warning signs that you have a debt problem, and tips on how to get a handle on it.

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By Jessica Dickler, CNNMoney.com staff writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Yes, the country is in a financial crisis, and the government has provided a $700 billion Band-Aid to help stop the bleeding. But what kind of first aid is there for your personal finances?

Many Americans are struggling to pay their bills and keep up with rising prices, and the debt is mounting. Consumer debt is now at $2.58 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve's consumer credit report released Tuesday.

But how bad is it for you?

The first step is admitting you have a problem, says Bill Hardekopf, CEO of LowCards.com and author of "The Credit Card Guidebook."

"It's important to make sure that you recognize and admit that you have a debt problem. Then you can face it head on," Hardekopf said.

A good guideline for consumers is their ratio of debt-to-income, suggests Eric Tyson, author of "Personal Finance for Dummies." Debt should account for less than 20% of annual income, including car loans and credit cards, Tyson said. For example, if you make $40,000 a year and you had $10,000 on credit cards, "that would be worrisome."

There are other telltale signs that you may have a debt problem. For example, if you worry about debt or how your bills are going to get paid, it could be a sign of trouble according to Greg McBride, senior financial analyst at Bankrate.com.

"Or if you are robbing Peter to pay Paul," McBride said, referring to those who use credit cards or take additional loans so they can stay current on outstanding obligations, and that includes putting a payment on plastic when you don't have enough cash in your account to pay for something outright.

Another warning sign is that you've been hit with a late fee or over-the-limit fee in the past year because you didn't have the money to pay your bills - or you have to juggle bills month to month because you can't afford to pay all of them.

And finally, take a look at your credit balances. If at least one of your credit cards is maxed out, then you have a debt problem, adds Hardekopf.

Financial experts offer these steps to help consumers climb out of personal debt and turn their financial picture around - even before the economy does. Here's how:

1. Look at the big picture. Experts agree that before fixing your finances, you must first take stock of your complete financial picture. Compile all of your bills and outstanding debts, including credit cards, mortgages, student loans, auto loans, personal loans and bank loans, and pinpoint exactly what you owe on each account and in total. List the creditor, monthly payment, outstanding balance, interest rate, due date and credit limit for each.

2. Pay important bills first. If you have to make choices about what to pay, prioritize the bills that are necessary to cover health, shelter, basic food and transportation to work or school, Hardekopf said.

3. Call your creditors. If you have missed payments, your creditor may be able to help you work out a payment plan, lower your rate, or lower your monthly payment, or even waive the late fee. Also try to negotiate lower rates. If you're paying the monthly minimums, then you're likely getting killed by interest. But some lenders may be willing to lower your rate if you explain your situation to them. Otherwise, shop around for a mortgage or credit card with a lower rate.

4. Transfer balances. If you have a high interest rate on one card and a running balance, consider transferring that balance to a card with a lower interest rate. Some cards still offer 0% for 12 months for balance transfers. That's a great opportunity to pay as much as you can over the monthly minimum and pay down your balance over 12 months. But keep in mind that most cards do charge a balance transfer fee of 3%, Hardekopf warned; so look for one that has a cap on the balance transfer fee. The amount you save on interest payments should more than offset the fee.

5. Quit the cards. If you feeling like you are drowning in credit card debt, stop using credit cards altogether. Often switching to cash or a debit card helps keep balances under control, save money on interest and has also been shown to decrease spending overall.

6. Prioritize paying down debt. Start with the credit card that has the highest interest rate. If they are all about the same then start with the credit card that is almost at its credit limit. Reducing your debt-to-credit ratio will improve your credit score. Experts suggest getting your credit card balance to less than 30% of your credit limit.

7. Bulk up your payments. Aim to pay more than the minimum amount for your loans, especially credit cards. The minimum payment might be a mere 2% of your balance, which makes paying off that debt almost impossible. For example, Hardekopf offered, if you have a credit card balance of $8,000 and your interest rate is 12%, making only minimum payments of 2% a month would take 346 months to pay off the balance and cost $7,696 in interest. If you pay 5% of your balance each month, it will take 109 months to pay off and will cost you $1,579 in interest.

8. Check your credit report for mistakes. For a free copy of your credit report, visit annualcreditreport.com or call 877-322-8228. It's not uncommon to find an old error that's dragging down your credit score. You can make a dispute by mail, telephone or online. If a corrected error results in a higher credit score, contact your creditors to make sure they know about it, and ask for a lower interest rate.

9. Get help. If paying down debt and cutting expenses doesn't seem feasible, contact a reputable debt counselor for help. The National Foundation of Credit Counseling (nfcc.org) is a good place to start. But look for someone that has a skill set that matches what you need, Tyson said. "If you're struggling with 'should I refinance my mortgage' a lot of financial advisers are not set up to answer questions like that."

10. Start saving. According to McBride, the greatest barrier to saving is not the means but rather the discipline. Start putting a small amount aside in a high-yield bank money market deposit account or savings account. "Nothing you do financially will help you sleep better at night than knowing that you have money in the bank for a rainy day," McBride said. To top of page

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