These are indeed lean times, when there’s not a drop of froth left in household budgets.
Traditionally, debt counselors could find expenditures — like the infamous $4 latte — that consumers could eliminate to better meet their monthly bills.
Now, because of a “perfect storm” of high mortgage payments, gas prices and credit card bills, more consumers have already budgeted to the bone before seeking out debt counseling, says Chuck Stanley, senior vice president at Money Management International, a national, nonprofit counseling firm.
They want to keep their home and preserve their credit record, so these consumers have been living lean — and still coming up short.
“To balance a budget, you either decrease expenses or increase income. And taking a second job is the immediate way to increase income,” says Gail Cunningham, spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
But while more income can balance an out-of-whack financial life, a second job isn’t always a feasible option in real life.
“I would estimate that about 80 percent of the time we are putting (a second job) in front of the consumer as an option,” says Chris Viale, president of Cambridge Credit Counseling Corp., a nationwide debt counseling firm.
The $800 question
With only 24 hours in a day, some people, like single parents, can’t devote any more of them to work.
And when monthly income shortfall is too great — more than about $800 — extra, part-time wages won’t fill the gap, says Stanley.
Consumers, beleaguered with overwhelming debt, may not take well to the simple command: “Get another job.”
“Instead, we first ask about what people’s hobbies and interests are,” says Stanley. “We explore whether that can lead to job opportunities.” He’s seen sports enthusiasts, for example, serving as referees and umpires for park district games, at about $25 to $30 a game. And one woman, an avid cook, secured permission from her employer to sell breakfast items to morning workers at her company.
Both passions and skills can be routes to flexible income earning opportunities, says Helen LaVan, a DePaul University management professor and career counselor. She’s seen people pick up everything from part-time bookkeeping to freelance writing lately, not always creating their own opportunities but also finding jobs on Web sites like Indeed.com and Craigslist.com.
Retail is the reality
Of course, not everyone has special skills. And in this down economy, there may not be demand in your area for your particular talent.
For many, the only chance to find extra income is to scour the landscape of businesses with openings nights and weekends, says James Greeley, director of career services at Merrimack College.
In this recessionary environment, hiring is down, he acknowledges. Still, there are a number of hours that need to be staffed by businesses, like hospitals, restaurants, and retail stores, and determined workers have a good chance of picking up a position.
Moreover, Greeley thinks that potential hires shouldn’t be afraid to tell employers that they are caught up in the current credit crisis, and are highly motivated to get a second income to keep their home. “Saying that you really need extra income to meet bills may strike an employer like you are really motivated and will be willing to come to work.”
Today, unprecedented numbers of people are facing acute debt, and the idea of doing all you can to keep up with bills can be undermined by rumors that it’s smarter to simply leave bills unpaid, or even walk away from a home with a heavy mortgage.
“Since bankruptcy laws were reformed in 2005, many people think bankruptcy is off the table and that they are justified by walking away (from bills),” says Stuart Vyse, a Connecticut College professor and author of “Going Broke: Why Americans Can’t Hold On To Their Money.”
In reality, most debtors can still find considerable relief filing for bankruptcy, he adds. Indeed, bankruptcy is an option that’s explored for those drowning in unsustainable debt, says Viale.
But those who can keep up, perhaps with a second income, may be better able to secure new terms from their credit card company, Viale adds.
“If you think you can just not pay your bills, you’re not looking at the big picture,” says Steven McCormick, president of First Centennial Mortgage in Aurora, Ill. “Your credit is going to take a hit, and you won’t be able to get affordable credit in the future.”
Moreover, one government-backed program, called FHA Secure, designed to help homeowners refinance into a more affordable mortgage, hasn’t had many takers because only those who’ve maintained relatively good credit qualify, says McCormick. But he adds that the program is still a good option for households with credit scores over about 580.