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Oprah's Newest Diet

Move over, cheating spouses, frumpy housewives, and (washed up?) Hollywood stars: Oprah Winfrey's show has dusted off the couch to make room for a more serious subject. It seems the daytime diva wants us to go on a diet -- a debt diet.

What a wonderful and timely idea. I mean, the statistics are damning. According to Oprah's money-management experts, 70% of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck, and more homes are being foreclosed today than at any other time in history.

I'll add one more: The national savings rate is in the red, which means, on average, we Americans spend more than we save. To make up the difference, we borrow; and this has been a boon to credit issuers.

Oprah says we need to cut the fat. And I say we all need a healthy dose of Foolishness.

Go lean
So how do the experts recommend we ease the burden? Oprah's team uses a four-step program, and I'm going to add a fifth:

  1. Figure out what you owe. You've got to know what the debt dragon looks like before you can slay it.

  2. Track your spending. You may find a lot of wasted money. Use it to pay off the debt.

  3. Learn to play the credit card game. Negotiate better rates with your existing card company, or switch balances to lower-rate cards to begin saving interest. (Tip: Bankrate (Nasdaq: RATE  ) , the mother of credit information for businesses and consumers alike, offers a great website through which you can find balance transfer deals.)

  4. Stop spending. I don't really have to explain this one, do I? You know what you need. You know what you don't.

  5. Pay your most expensive debts first. Paying off your cards with the highest interest rates will get you a remarkable return on your money and rapidly improve your cash flow.

Three families on the show agreed to go on the debt diet. And it couldn't have happened soon enough. Between the families exists more than $360,000 in debt, or an average of greater than $120,000 each. But that's not your problem, is it?

The Yo-Yo effect
I'll admit it: Eight years ago my wife and I were $45,000 in debt. And you can read our whole story here. But I'll sum it up with this: I was so debt-obsessed that I used to take out cash advances to go blow money in Vegas. But that was before I met my wife, and she smartened me up good. Together, with a little purple notebook, we conquered the debt in three years.

In the grand scheme of things, however, I'm a lightweight. Less than two weeks ago a Fool posted to our Credit Cards and Consumer Debt board an amazing story of paying down more than $125,000 in debt. In January, a Texas couple wrote of paying down $37,000 in consumer debt. And another erased debt in October after confessing to have borrowed $19,000 on a credit card to pay for housing costs. These stories are common. Indeed, financial freedom has been spreading through Fooldom for more than a decade now. And if we Fools can do it, so can you.

But there's always risk. Living beyond your means, it seems, is commonplace. All the families on Oprah admit to spending more to keep up the facade.

I can attest to that, too. I've been self-employed for three years now, while my wife stays home with our three children. My career took a turn at the beginning of last year when I started writing more for the Fool. Doing so led to more writing gigs, but they paid less than what we had been accustomed to. We didn't cut our spending, and subsequently our bills piled up and our balances ballooned. Now, including a home equity line, we're more than $60,000 in debt. Fortunately, the fix we're in today is nothing like our situation eight years ago. My guess is that it will take three years to pay down our latest list of obligations.

Get help
For many, debt is a roadblock to a healthy, happy retirement. Don't let that be you. Take Oprah's debt diet challenge. For more advanced help, try a guest pass to Robert Brokamp's Motley Fool Rule Your Retirement service and its extensive coverage of the struggle for financial freedom. You can even find solutions that have been tried and proved true by members of the indebted public. It's free for 30 days.

The Foolish bottom line
Debt is a drag. Or maybe it's a disease. Either way, Oprah is right: It's time to loosen the shackles, get Foolish, and declare fiscal freedom. Are you up for the challenge? I am.

Bankrateis a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick.

Fool contributorTim Beyersloves being called a complete Fool. He invites you to join the fun. Tim didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story at the time of publication. You can find out what stocks are in his portfolio by checking Tim's Foolprofile. The Motley Fool has a fulldisclosure policy.

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