9 smart debt strategies in 2009

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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.

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.

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.