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9 smart debt strategies in 2009

Now is the time to pay close attention to your debts. Why? Because if this credit crunch turns into a "Credit Winter," you could get financial frostbite if you are not prepared.

I have warmed up nine hot debt management moves to keep your personal finances from freezing up.

1. Aggressively pay down debt. Don't pass go and don't collect more problems. "Aggressive pay down" means paying as much as you can each month. If you were wondering when to begin an aggressive pay down of your debt, the answer is NOW.

2. Set goals and prepare a budget. A plan to keep your spending on track is critical in these economic times. Take some time with your spouse, significant other or the cat/dog (if you are single) and set your short-term and long-term financial goals. Then, put together a budget or spending plan to assure that you reach them. Bankrate has plenty of advice on the simple art of budgeting.

3. Save some and spend some. During a credit crunch, the credit you are planning to use may not be available and carrying balances should be avoided. Instead, save for those unexpected expenses and also for regular purchases. Your goal should be to save a minimum of six months of living expenses for emergencies.

Also, be sure to save and pay cash for that new iPod or GPS, rather than charging it to your credit card. But, since spending drives a big piece of our economy, save according to your plan in No. 2 above, and spend the rest to help keep the economy and jobs going.

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4. Switch to automatic or electronic bill payment. This may seem odd, but during a credit crunch, creditors are looking to lessen their risk. If you miss a payment, you may find a default interest rate of 30 percent plus, making it that much more difficult to pay down your balances.

I suggest you switch to automatic bill pay on every account that offers this option. This will help you avoid the pitfalls of universal default. Choose a bank that assures your payment will arrive on time. Using automatic bill pay will also help reduce the risk of identity theft.

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