debt

When do you have a debt problem?

A one hundred dollar bill being cut in half and paperwork in the background
Highlights
  • Your debt-to-income ratio is important to evaluate your financial health.
  • If you make only the minimum card payment, your debt could snowball.
  • When the debt warning signs appear, seek the help of a credit counselor.

You can't sleep. You jump when the phone rings. For you, four of the scariest words in the English language are "Your statement is enclosed." And it's all because, as National Foundation for Credit Counseling spokeswoman Gail Cunningham says, "the dark cloud of debt follows you around 24/7."

In some cases, a little financial belt tightening or a few accelerated credit card payments are enough to get that cloud to dissipate. But sometimes a debt crisis becomes too overwhelming to handle on your own. How do you know when you need help to get it under control? The tipping point won't be the same for everyone, but here are some general guidelines to assess your situation.

Minimum payment syndrome

Your debt-to-income ratio is one important tool in evaluating your financial health.

"We recommend that people's debt load be no more than 20 percent of their take-home pay," Cunningham says. "That includes the vehicle. So, if you bring home $1,000 per month, and you've got a $200 a month car payment, you'd better not owe anybody else. We also recommend that your housing expense not be over 30 percent."

Another clue is how much of your debt you pay each month. The NFCC created a quiz called "How Do I Know If I'm In Financial Trouble?" consisting of 20 true-or-false statements. If more than two or three ring true, you may need credit counseling, the foundation says. Statement No. 1 in the quiz is, "I normally pay only the minimum due on my credit card bills."

Now that the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act is in effect, every bill comes with a bracing reminder of the consequences of that practice. Credit card issuers have to disclose how long it will take customers to wipe out a debt by making only the minimum monthly payments.

"The reality is that it will probably take you decades to pay off that debt," Cunningham says.

A related reality check can creep up after a long period of making interest-only payments on a loan.

"If someone is only paying the interest and the debt keeps increasing because he's not paying down any of the principal, it just snowballs," says Carol Friedhoff, a financial planner at Savvy Outcomes in Dublin, Ohio. "At some point, you cannot even afford to pay the interest."

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Credit spending addiction

Barbara Wright, a credit counselor with ClearPoint Financial Solutions in Chesapeake, Va., points to three more red flags. If you find yourself calling credit card issuers to check your available credit, constantly using your credit card as extra income or paying for things on credit that you used to buy with cash like groceries, your debt habit may be out of control, she says.

Simply paying off your balance may not be enough to ensure your recovery from this addiction. "Paying the credit card off is a good thing, but then going back and recharging on it is not," Wright says.

Even worse is piling on debt when you're already overwhelmed. "If you are in a bad situation but you are continuing to add debt, that's also a bad sign," Friedhoff says. "At some point, you need to stop spending."

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