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It can be staggering to find out that only 20 percent of Americans are free of any kind of debt. The most common form is mortgage debt, followed closely by debt accumulated by credit cards and student loans. Living in a constant sea of debt can cause unnecessary stress, a hit to your credit score and an inability to live the life you want. Just because you’re experiencing debt problems right now does not mean that they won’t go away. Unfortunately, expecting the financial problems to go away on their own is not going to do anything for you. Diligent work on your budget and managing your debt requires some work on your own part to get things done.

1. Understand Your Debts

Before you can do anything to manage your debt, you need to know how much you owe. Gather all of the necessary paperwork, statements and bills to determine how much you owe each month in the way of debts. Make a list of these debts and calculate how much it all comes to when paid in a timely manner. Adjust this list as your debts become resolved or change.

2. Work with a Debt Consolidator

Oftentimes, a person might experience a situation in which they owe more than they make. Saying that you can just pay your bills on time in this circumstance doesn’t work, since you’ll constantly be struggling with money and may not have the funds needed for essentials like food, utilities and clothing. Debt consolidators are specially trained to reduce debts to a more reasonable amount. You don’t always have to work with this type of expert, but they are critical in times when you owe so much that you are not able to make payments without going hungry as a result.

3. Make Payments on Time

Setting yourself up for payment reminders or using your online bank account to group bills in one convenient location will help you remember to pay those bills. Being consistently late on bills because you forgot to pay them should never be an issue with so many bill reminding technologies put into place, and being late on one bill will add up over the course of time because it’ll feel like you can never catch up. There are many mobile apps you can download to manage bills and send yourself alerts for when they’re due.

4. Always Make the Minimum Payment

When you don’t make the minimum payment on a bill, additional service and late payment fees are attached for the next time you go to pay. These late pay fees can add up exponentially when it’s done to each of your bills. By making the minimum payment, this prevents these charges from being added to your payments.

5. Decide Which Debts are Most Important

Dealing with credit card debt should be the top priority for repayment. Choose the credit card that has the highest interest rate, as this is the one that is costing you the most money. Use your list of debts to prioritize your debts from the ones that are costing you the most money to the least.

6. Pay Off Any Collections

If you have limited funds for paying off debt, put the focus on keeping your other accounts well-paid. Don’t put good standing accounts at risk just because you’re experiencing debts with other companies. Pay past debts when you can afford to do so and be aware that creditors will continue to put your account in collections so long as you owe them money.

7. Use Your Emergency Fund

If you have an emergency fund to fall back on, now is the time to use it. This can include accounts such as a 401K, life insurance plan and savings accounts. If you don’t already have an emergency fund, try to fit it into your budget to start building one. This prevents you from going into debt when an emergency hits home like a hospital bill or broken appliance.

8. Create a Realistic Monthly Budget

You need to keep your finances on a strict budget in order to tackle your debts. Overspending is a leading cause of debt accumulation. If you’re constantly spending your hard-earned money on things you don’t need like fast food meals and new jewelry or clothing, you’ll never make a dent in your debt problems. Put yourself on a restricted budget and don’t deviate from the plan unless it is an emergency.

9. Recognize When You Need Help

There may come a time when you’re trying everything you can, working on a budget and paying your bills and you can’t seem to catch up with yourself. This is often a sign that you need additional help from a professional. Debt consolidators and budget accountants are there to assist you in managing your funds and getting them under control so that debts are paid off in a timely fashion.