NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Whether just out of college or just entering retirement, debt has become a way of life for many Americans. Money problems plague every age category.
In fact, 43 percent of American households spend more than they earn. And even though Americans aged 35 to 44 are entering their prime earning years, bankruptcies in that age category jumped 50 percent from 1991 to 2001.
If you're thirty- or forty-something, how can you prevent your debt from spiraling out of control? Here are today's five tips.
1. Watch out for mortgage overload.
The No. 1 mistake that people in their 30s and 40s make is that they over-obligate themselves, says Steve Rhode, a money coach and spokesman for debt counselors Myvesta.org.
They figure that their recent salary and job improvements can continue -- and they buy a larger house and spend more on the kids on the assumption those gains can continue. People use their banker as financial advisor, depending on their lender to tell them how much they can borrow, Rhodes says.
"Don't base this decision on how much the lender is willing to lend to you; they're in the business of making loans, it's up to you to make the payments every month so you have to decide what is right for your budget and for your circumstances even if that means taking on a smaller loan and buying a smaller house."
One good point is to think about whether you can manage your monthly mortgage payment on just one salary in case either you or your spouse decides to -- or has to -- quit working for a period of time.
A good rule of thumb to determine whether you're overspending for housing is this: Your housing costs shouldn't exceed 28 percent of your monthly gross income or 36 percent for overall debt. Don't forget that your housing costs aren't just the mortgage, they also include insurance costs, property taxes, maintenance and any homeowner dues to associations.
2. Safeguard your health.
Rhode says that he sees people in financial trouble who have opted to pay their mortgage or credit card bills over their health insurance.
For people in their prime, especially, getting coverage is essential -- even if you feel invincible there's more riding on your health than you may realize.
CNNfn's Gerri Willis shares five tips on how to manage your debt.|
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"People view health insurance as discretionary," he says. "It only takes one accident to throw your life in the financial dumper."
Rhode suggests going the extra mile to insure your physical health and your financial health by not only paying your health insurance premiums, but also picking up disability insurance.
Short-term insurance will cover you 90 days to six months and long-term disability will cover you for six months or more. Rhode recommends buying the long-term policy.
According to a survey by the authors of "The Fragile Middle Class," 19 percent of respondents declared bankruptcy because of soaring medical costs.
3. Break the plastic habit.
When cash is scarce, families and busy professionals use credit cards to make ends meet. Americans have nearly $800 billion in credit card debt, while household debt is hitting an all-time high of $9.4 trillion.
Meanwhile, credit card companies are enticing new customers more aggressively than ever. Solicitations jumped from 1.52 billion a decade ago to 4.29 billion in 2003.
Worse, late fees and sky-high interest rates push your overall debt higher. Last year, the industry took in $43 billion in credit card fees. Late fees account for 77 percent of outstanding balances.
Naturally, you'll want to get the lowest interest rate possible on your cards by contacting the issuers directly and asking them to meet or beat rates from competitors. Automate your payments online to make sure your payments are on time. Average late fees rose to $32 this year from $27 in 2001.
4. Don't raid the 401(k) cookie jar.
Parents feel obligated to help their children pay for their college education. The College Board estimates the cost of a four-year education between $10,000 and $26,000.
But borrowing from your retirement is no way to do it, says Rhode. That's because once you're taken the money out, you lose the benefits of appreciation over time.
Take advantage of the free money out there in the form of scholarships. Business organizations, service groups, clubs and others offer scholarships of $1,000 to $5,000. Many are not needs-based; some simply require that you write an essay to compete for the money.
Do you spend your weekends helping the local park service? Has your dad been a Rotary member all his adult life? Look to groups you know or participate in. Don't forget that companies like Microsoft and Intel give away money to students too.
To find the best options, use search terms such as "online application" plus another phrase that describes any area where you might distinguish yourself, such as "athletic scholarship." Zero in on current info by including dates and even locations in your search. One more trick when searching online: to avoid a bunch of commercial sites put the phrase "-.com" or minus.com into your search.
Student loans make up the largest part of financial aid, accounting for 54 percent of the total financial aid awarded each year. According to the College Board, in the 2002-2003 period there was more aid available than ever before -- over $105 billion worth.
There is also a non-need based loan called the PLUS loan. It's sponsored by the federal government and is geared towards parents. Parents can borrow up to the total cost of education. These loans currently have a very competitive interest rate, around 4.2 percent. Log onto www.collegeboard.com for more details.
5. How much is too much?
Before you make any dramatic changes to your financial behavior, find out whether the debt you've accumulated is a temporary problem that can be fixed by applying a little financial discipline or a potential credit crusher that could hurt you for years to come.
To figure out which camp you fall into, start by asking yourself some of these questions: Are you using credit cards to pay living expenses? Have you cashed in retirement savings to pay monthly bills? Are you unsure of just how much you owe?
If you answer yes to these questions, you're living on the edge and should consider serious steps for clearing up your debt problem.
Start by going to the debt calculator at www.bankrate.com, called the debt-o-meter, to get a better sense of how serious your problem is. As a rule of thumb, you'll want to make sure that the portion of your disposable income that you spend on installment debt (meaning credit cards) is less than 15 percent.
Gerri Willis is a personal finance editor for CNN Business News. Willis also is co-host of CNNfn's Open House, weekdays from Noon to 12:30 p.m. (ET). E-mail comments to email@example.com.