10 bad habits that lead to debt disaster

Try this: "Pay for living expenses first," says Cunningham. After the house or rent payment, this means that utilities, groceries and medical care should top the priority list. Next comes the car payment -- you want to avoid repossession, obviously. Down the line, secured loans and co-signed debts follow in importance, then unsecured loans and credit cards. "Ideally, everyone can get paid, but if a choice has to be made, paying in this order will do a better job of keeping the home life stable."

Because bills often aren't due in this order, you'll need to work out a payment schedule and set aside money from each paycheck. See No. 9.

Bad Habit No. 8: Charging purchases instead of paying in cash or with a debit card 

How many times have you charged services or merchandise when you had the money to pay with cash or debit? Insignificant purchases of $20 and $30 made several times over can quickly add up, particularly if you already carry a balance. Balances you can't pay off each month mean paying interest charges and subsequently, more money for items you could have bought outright, interest-free.

Try this: Make a habit of paying for purchases under $50 with cash, debit or check. Knowing that the money has to clear the bank sooner could help curb your spending habits. Just be sure to check your balance regularly to ensure that you have enough funds.

Bad Habit No. 9: Making credit payments late 

After all, it's only a $25 late fee. Besides wasting money you could've put toward the balance, a late payment that arrives 60 days past due can throw your account into default and increase your interest rate. The higher rate will be lowered after six months, if you stay current, but that six months' of higher interest can add up.

Try this: On a calendar, mark upcoming paydays and payments that should come out of that paycheck, she says. If you're mailing payments, send them seven to 10 business days in advance. Better yet, sign up for online bill pay. Just check that the address on file and the address on the statement match, or the payment might not arrive on time. If you're still late, call the creditor, explain the situation and ask them to forgive the late fee. Check your credit report and be sure the information shows up correctly.

Bad Habit No. 10: Make the minimum payment only 

Paying the minimum is better than paying nothing, but it doesn't do much to pay off most balances and forces you to keep paying interest. By paying interest on interest, you lose any savings from buying a dress on sale, Cunningham says.

Try this: If you can afford to pay more or in full, go ahead and pay as much of the balance as you can. You never know when you're going to have a tough month. Pay in full every month and you can avoid interest charges altogether.

Or, if paying more than the minimum proves difficult, consider working part time or decreasing your expenses -- or both, says Cunningham. Put all of your earnings toward the debt. Use our minimum payment calculator to see how much you're saving in interest charges.


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