Debt Reduction for Singles

by Gary Foreman


Dear Gary,
What are good resources for debt reduction for single people?
Jennifer

Jennifer sure packs a lot of question is one short sentence! And if my mail is any indication she's not alone. With consumer debts reaching ever higher levels more and more people are concerned about how to reduce their debt.

There are really two different tools you can use to reduce your debt. The first involves managing the debt you already have. The second is to find ways to reduce your expenses and pay off the existing debt.

Let's take first things first. How many of you know how much you owe, to who it's owed and what the interest rate is on that debt? This is a necessary building block in managing your debt. We'll begin by making a list of our debts.

You can use a sheet of paper or one of those PC personal finance packages. For each debt you owe we'll need to know some information. What's the source of the debt? Mortgage, car loans, home equity loans, student loans, mastercard, store credit card. List them all.

In a second column put down the total amount of principal still owed. Credit card statements will tell you the amount. For home, auto and some other loans you might need to call the lender to get the balance due.

In the third column list the interest rate that you're paying on the loan. If it's a floating rate, list the current percent. And finally, include a column for comments. For instance, if there's some type of prepayment penalty.

If you haven't done this before you're going to find out that not all loans are created equal. Some are more expensive than others. Our goal here is to identify the most expensive debt you have. That's the loan that we'll either transfer to a cheaper account or pay off first.

There are plenty of opportunities to 'transfer' balances from one credit card to another. It's a good idea. Money that you save in interest payments can be used to reduce your principal. One word of caution. Some card issuers are offering low rates that jump to much higher rates after six or twelve months. If you transfer to one of these cards make sure you're ready to move again when the rate increases.

The other management tool you'll use is to pay off the highest interest rate debt first. Suppose that you had enough money each month to pay all the account minimums and an extra $100. Your best move would be to apply that $100 to the account with the highest interest rate. That way the average interest rate on your whole debt will go down a little each month and save you money.

Now for the second part of the answer. How do you get rid of the debt. There's really only one way. That's to pay off a little each month until it's gone. To do that you need to spend less than you make.

If you don't have a budget, you need one. You're dreaming if you think that you can control your spending without an organized method of tracking your expenses. And it's not that hard. Especially if you have access to a computer with some of the budgeting software available.

Once you have a budget in place take a look at see where you spend the most. Chances are it's for housing. According to the U.S. Statistical Abstract the average single adult spends 33% and the single parent 37% of their expenses on housing.

If you want to spend less you need to understand where that money goes. You can't just refuse to pay your mortgage. But maybe you could refinance it at a lower interest rate. Or take a look at your utility bills. If you could shave 10% off a $200 electric bill that would be $20 each month. Nothing phenomenal, but it would help to pay that 16% credit card bill.

Obviously, it's difficult for many to save on housing. For single parents especially, less expensive housing can often mean less safe housing. That's not a good trade-off. There are some creative answers available. Some single parents are taking in roommates. Nothing says that two single moms can't share one home. Not only is there rent to be saved, there's also the possibility to reduce childcare expenses.

Food is another expensive area. The average single parent household spent 16.6% of their total expenses on food. Singles without children averaged 13.7%. That's a lot of money. And much of it can be controlled. It's easy to rely on fast or prepared foods when you're cooking for only one or two. In fact, it's hard to cook a frugal meal in small portions. Your cheapest meal is one that's prepared largely from scratch. That seems foolish if you're cooking small amounts.

One creative solution is a type of cooking club. Two, three or four singles agree to meet once each month. Before they get together each is responsible for cooking a meal and dividing it into portions for each member. Let's face it. You probably wouldn't make lasagna for just one or two people. You'd buy it premade. But it's really not much more expensive and doesn't take any more time to cook for eight or ten. And if the return is three other meals that just require reheating it's a pretty fair exchange!

Some of you guys might not be too comfortable in the kitchen. So find another answer. Automobiles are the next major expense in anyone's budget. Just as you're uncomfortable cooking, many single women are uncomfortable with car maintenance and repairs. There's probably a lady in your circle of friends that would send you home with a meal or two if you changed the oil in her car. Nothing romantic here, just good old fashioned neighborliness.

Ultimately, there's no magic in getting out of debt. Short of an inheritance, it's just a matter of spending less than you make and managing the resources at your disposal. It's like any long term goal. You need to make the decision to achieve the goal and be willing to take dozens of small individual steps on a regular basis. If you ask anyone who's already debt free you'll find that the journey is challenging. But the freedom earned when the last debt is paid is well worth the effort.


Gary Foreman

Gary Foreman is a former financial planner and purchasing manager who founded The Dollar Stretcher.com website and newsletters in 1996. He's been featured in MSN Money, Yahoo Finance, Fox Business, The Nightly Business Report, US News Money and he's a regular contributor to CreditCards.com. You can follow Gary on Twitter or visit Gary Foreman on Google+. Gary is also available for audio, video or print interviews. For more info see his media page.


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