Michael Guillemette, Ph.D., CFP, University of Missouri

Falling into debt can cripple your prospects for long-term financial health. Continuously piling up credit card debt leaves you vulnerable when the day of reckoning inevitably arrives, as it did for millions during the Great Recession.

Once you can no longer pay your debts, the true damage begins. Perhaps your credit score takes a tumble. Or maybe you lose your home to foreclosure. Even worse, runaway debt can create pressures that rip apart families.

Household debt levels have eased a bit in recent years. But millions of people remain trapped in debt, says Michael Guillemette, a Certified Financial Planner and assistant professor in the department of personal financial planning at the University of Missouri.

Guillemette says he especially is concerned about the student loan debt that millennials have accumulated in recent years.

Fortunately, there are ways out of a debt mess. In the following interview, Guillemette offers some debt management tips.

It is no secret that a huge swath of the American public is in debt. Where do things stand in 2015?

Household debt has come down since the Great Recession. However, there is one area that worries me: Many millennials have taken out tremendous student loan debt in recent years with little consideration to whether it is a good return on investment given their potential job prospects after graduation.

It is possible that this has led to a delay in larger expenditures such as buying a home. Also, the percentage of Americans under the age of 30 who own a business is the lowest it has been in over 20 years. Again, this may be due to the burden of high student loan balances.

Along those lines, a recent Wells Fargo survey found that 4 in 10 millennials are “overwhelmed” by debt. That is double the number of baby boomers. Why are millennials so deeply in debt?

The cost of college education has risen dramatically over the past two decades. This has caused millennials to be burdened with the highest level of student loan debt of any previous generation.

Let’s say there is a couple deeply in debt who are determined to begin crawling out in 2015. What is the first piece of advice you would give to them?

The most important piece of advice I would give would be to create a budget. This is easier said than done, but it will help people set aside money each month to pay off debt. Higher interest debt should always be paid off first, regardless of the balance.

What other advice would you offer them?

I recommend that people set up automatic drafts out of their checking or savings account to pay off debt right after they get paid. This is a helpful commitment device, as it protects people from spending their money on non-debt-related expenditures.

What are some of the most common mistakes you see people make when they try to manage their debt?

Many people do not create a plan on how they are going to pay down the debt. Most people have good intentions of paying down debt. But without a plan, income is more likely to be spent on non-debt-related expenditures.

Many people who have debt problems are in denial and do not seek assistance from a professional. However, seeking professional advice can be extremely helpful in terms of designing and implementing a plan to get out of debt.

Speaking with a financial professional might also help to reveal underlying money scripts that may explain the cause of their debt issues.