smart spending

6-part personal bailout plan

Caveat: COBRA usually only applies to companies with 20 or more employees, plus the company still has to be operating and offering group insurance. Also, after nine months, you can continue COBRA for an additional nine months, but must pay the full premium. Contact your employer or the insurance company to get the forms. Your employer should provide them. If you get the runaround, call your state labor department.

Car payments

Getting behind on payments doesn't have to mean losing the car.

First, decide if it's a need or a want. If you already have one or two others in the garage, you might be able to manage without it, says Remar Sutton, president of the Consumer Task Force for Automotive Issues, and the founder of And that can free up money for other bills. If you need it, you still have options.

  • With a lease: Tally up the cost of getting out of the lease. Then call the leasing agency to learn if it's willing to renegotiate, says Jack Gillis, director of public affairs for the Consumer Federation of America and author of "The Car Book." Realistically, it may or may not work, depending on the value of the car and how anxious the agency is to keep you in it, he says.
  • With a loan: Here you're in a better position when it comes to renegotiating your loan, especially if you owe more than the car is worth, says Gillis. If the loan company takes back the car, they take a loss. So it's to the company's advantage to keep you in the car. However, if your credit is still decent -- even if it's slightly tarnished -- it might be smarter to refinance the loan at a better rate. First try a few credit unions, says Sutton. Since most of the credit unions bypassed the subprime lending meltdown, "that means credit unions aggressively are looking for people to lend money to," he says. The average person will save about $2,000 by refinancing a car loan, according to numbers from

If you just need help with one payment, you might be able to get an extension, says Gail Cunningham, spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. How it works: You cover just the interest, instead of the whole payment, and the loan company tacks the difference onto the end of your loan. However, most companies limit this practice to once or twice annually, she says.

Job loss

If you were fired or laid off, you're likely eligible for unemployment benefits. Get the details through your state employment office by using Bankrate's state map. Many unemployment offices also have job leads, and information on training programs.

To polish your job seeking skills. visit the library or hit the Internet. Try, where author and career management expert Martin Yate has made six of his best-selling job-hunting books available free to online readers, along with online job-search workshops twice a week.

Small bills

Sometimes being able to pay the little bills can make a big difference. If you need help with a power or water bill, there are usually a couple of resources you can tap.
  • Utilities: First, call the utility company. Sometimes you can arrange to pay the bill a month or so late. The company might also have a program for people who need help with bills. In addition, representatives may be able to direct you to community resources.
  • Utilities and other bills: In about 80 percent of the U.S., dialing 211 will connect you to a local agency that can put you in touch with resources in your community, says Linda Daily, director of 2-1-1 for United Way of America. The 211 service "will act as triage" to help locate other resources in the community that can help, says Daily. If your area doesn't have 211 services or your phone carrier blocks it, go online to for local-dial numbers and information on options, she says. Or visit the United Way at



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