Habits for Wealth: Dump Your Debt Habit

Do you have an unhealthy dependence on consumer credit? See how many of these statements describe you:

  • Your credit card gets more exercise than your dog.
  • Your credit card company singles you out for a special thank-you in its quarterly earnings report.
  • You have enough credit cards to deal a few hands of poker.
  • You can change your credit card daily to coordinate with your outfit.

Pass that test? Excellent. Now, for the next one. Even if you're not a credit card addict, do you waste money on consumer debt that could be saved or spent more wisely?

You don't have to be an irresponsible clotheshorse spending thousands of dollars on Manolo Blahniks to have bad habits when it comes to debt. If you've ever had to dip into your savings account to pay off a credit card or opened a bill wondering what the bottom line might be, you can probably find some room for improvement.

The problem
The problem with our debt habit is that the ramifications can sneak up on you. They even slide by unnoticed. Sometimes you can end up in debt just because you're thoughtlessly purchasing and using the mechanisms of debt (like credit cards).

Merchants make it easy. Credit cards offer rewards and cash, like rebates of up to 5% promoted by Discover Card (NYSE: DFS  ) . You can drive off in something shiny from the CarMax (NYSE: KMX  ) lot after getting almost instantaneous financing. Retailers from Macy's (NYSE: M  ) to (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) offer discounts to lure shoppers into credit lines.

Let's say you like to charge your purchases on a Credit is King card, which pays you a cash dividend for purchases. You go along your merry way all month, smiling about the money you'll earn. But when the bill comes -- oops! -- you've spent $100 more than you planned.

Grumbling a little, you pull $100 out of savings to pay off the card. That's not such a big deal -- until it starts happening month after month. And you're missing out on the income you could earn on your savings.

The math
That's why you want to be proactive about your use of debt all the time. A nip into savings here, a few dollars of interest there, and pretty soon we're talking about real money.

Legend has it that Albert Einstein once called compound interest the most powerful force in the universe. Compound interest is the engine that can turn even meager savings into a nice nest egg over time. Inattention to debt puts you on the wrong side of that equation. You spend dollars that could be put to work making you wealthy. You want to be on the right side -- the side that uses debt to make money but avoids debt when it hurts.

The solution
If you're mostly responsible about your credit cards and debt, then pat yourself on the back and make whatever changes you need to improve your record. Keep a running list of your credit card purchases, or develop a plan to pay off any expensive car loans. Motivate yourself by calculating the amount of money you lost to finance charges and lost savings last year. Write it down and put it in your wallet, where you'll see it anytime you're tempted to spend thoughtlessly.

If you're that clotheshorse with a closet full of expensive shoes, you'll need to attack the problem more directly. Walk straight over to the Credit Center to get help developing a strategy for attacking that debt and paying it off.

Pick up some more Foolish money-saving habits:

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