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9 smart debt strategies in 2009

5. Check your credit reports. Get free copies of your credit reports from all three major bureaus. Check and dispute errors and any inaccurate information with each credit bureau. You can usually do this online at the bureau's Web site.

6. Use any inactive cards you don't want closed. To keep access to the credit you already have, you may need to begin using any credit cards that you have not used in the past six months or so. Creditors are closing inactive accounts so they can limit unnecessary and unprofitable risks.

7. Be wary of tapping home equity. The housing market has not yet stabilized and prices may drop farther. Until the economy improves, I recommend not borrowing from the equity in your home due to the risk of unknowingly owing more than your home is worth.

Banks are reducing or closing lines of credit. So if you do plan on using a home equity line of credit check to pay a bill, be sure to see what (if anything) is still available on your lines of credit before you write and maybe bounce a check.

8. Never co-sign. Being responsible for your own credit use or misuse is hard enough. Never take on the responsibility of paying someone else's credit obligation. This almost never works out. You can easily lose money, credit standing and a friendship.

9. Protect your identity. Identity theft is just as real as a thief in the night. It is a growing concern now that credit is more difficult to obtain. The tight credit market increases the motive for people who stoop to the level of stealing your identity to gain access to credit.

Remember, most identity theft is done by someone you know. Protect your personal financial information by shredding financial documents and pay your bills electronically.

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