Financial Literacy 2007 - Retirement
A cartoon man on stairs placing a large coin in a piggy bank with a reddish/orange background
Juggling retirement savings and debt

This is where some tough love comes in, says Gail Cunningham with Consumer Credit Counseling Service in Dallas. Cunningham has helped clients get out of debt for 20 years, and her advice hasn't changed. If someone is stuck in minimum-payment mode, she recommends they make "power payments."

That's her polite way of telling folks to get a second job. "What I'm taking about is a part-time job and devoting all income to paying off debt," she says. "You can even do something you enjoy. If you like music, work in a music store. Do something you like, but dedicate all of that money, no questions asked, to paying off debt."

Sound distasteful? Perhaps. But Cunningham puts the matter simply. "Pick your poison. Stay in debt or get a job. Sometimes we have to do something in the short-term to make us happier in the long run."

6. Be wary of consolidation or home equity loans.

Obviously, the lower your interest payments, the easier it will be to climb out of debt. For that reason, many individuals consolidate, transferring various balances into a single loan with a lower rate. Others take out a home equity loan to borrow the money necessary to pay off credit card balances.

Both are sound financial moves in theory. In practice, too many people take out an equity loan or consolidate bills only to run up new balances all over again. That only exacerbates your debt woes.

For example, a homeowner who takes out an equity loan to pay credit card debts typically added $12,000 to their mortgages and still had more than $14,400 in outstanding credit card balances, according to one study by Demos. Americans are keeping their families afloat by putting their greatest asset at risk, the report concluded.

Cunningham concurs. "My experience has shown that folks, as well intentioned as they are, end up with more debt. It's an ingrained behavior pattern. They're so used to charging and living beyond their means. It's very hard to change a lifestyle," she says.

The bottom line: If you're consolidating or using your home to get out of debt, then you need to adhere to a strict budget to ensure the tactics work.

7. Build an emergency fund.

The last thing you need is for some mishap to add to your burden, so start saving for a rainy day. If your car sputters and dies, the boiler blows up or you lose your job, you want to be able to pay for it out-of-pocket instead of reaching for a credit card.

"Once people finish paying off credit cards, they should then take the equivalent of their payments and start putting it in emergency savings," says Brobeck.

Ideally, you should save up three to six months worth of living expenses. If you're single, and no one's relying on you, you can probably get away with three months. If you've got others to care for, or you're in a high-paying job that may take longer to replace, count on saving more.

8. Catch up on retirement savings.

At the same time, you'll also need to refocus on retirement. If you've been disciplined about setting aside money for debts, it won't take much adjusting to budget for savings. Experts advise you simply take the amount you've spent on debt and redirect it into retirement savings. If you were putting aside $400 a month to get debt free, then take that same amount and put it into your 401(k) or other retirement plan.

Remember, individuals who are 50 or older may put extra "catch up" contributions in various accounts to help them make up for lost time. For example, this year older savers can put up to $5,000 in an IRA. The upper limit for a 401(k) or 457 plan is $20,500. These levels may seem out of reach now, but there are opportunities to catch up that you should take advantage of as soon as possible.

9. Don't quit.

The length of time it takes for a household in debt to pay off the average credit card debt now runs three and a half years, according to Demos. That's long enough to give up, get discouraged and revert to bad habits.

Resist the temptation. There's no getting around the fact that digging yourself out of debt is hard work. So pat yourself on the back for taking on this difficult task. Notice how your credit card balance goes down each month. Enjoy these small accomplishments. Cut back expenses, but don't try to eliminate them entirely or you won't stick to your budget, says Cunningham. She says she has witnessed plenty of people successfully eliminate debt during her years as a counselor.

"Know the end is in sight," she says. "Be patient."

Are you worried about having enough money to retire someday? Or, do you have a plan of action? Share your story

« Back to the Table of Contents


Show Bankrate's community sharing policy

Connect with us