Just as many people who drink too much or eat too little don't always realize when they have a problem, many people with a lot of debt might mistakenly assume that they're not in financial trouble. You can be on very treacherous ground if you're saddled with a lot of debt -- especially if your debt load keeps growing -- so check out the signs below to see whether you have a serious debt management problem.
Note that you don't have to have to meet too many of the conditions below to qualify as someone who needs to get their debt management under control -- even one or two could do it.
- You're having trouble sleeping. If you're feeling stressed out about your debt, that's a sign that you may be overextended. (Some folks in such a situation will engage in "retail therapy," using shopping as a distraction and to relax.)
- You've maxed out one or more credit cards. Credit card limits are rarely very low, so if you've maxed one out, there's a good chance that you owe thousands of dollars.
- You keep charging more on your cards. Doing so will only keep your debt balance growing and will make your problems worse. You may realize this, but you still keep that card in your wallet.
- You're living beyond your means. Ideally, we should all be living below our means, so that we are able to maintain our households and lives while also saving and investing for tomorrow. If you're routinely spending more than you bring in, though, that's a recipe for disaster.
- You can't afford to pay much debt off each month. Living beyond your means will make it likely that you won't have enough money to pay your credit card bills. If you can't even make the minimum payment, you're likely doing a poor job managing your debt.
- You've been rejected when you tried to get a new card, borrow any money, or even consolidate your loans. That's a sign that the potential lender found you too risky due to your having borrowed too much already.
- You're being creative trying to make ends meet. You may be having trouble paying not only your credit card bills but also utility bills and your mortgage. Maybe you're moving money around in order to stay afloat -- perhaps borrowing from a retirement account or charging extra on one card in order to pay down debt on another.
- You're feeling hopeless. You may be grasping at straws, such as buying lottery tickets in a misplaced hope that they will get you out of your jam.
- You know you have a problem, but you're avoiding owning up to it. Maybe you're avoiding opening the mail or answering the phone, lest you encounter bills or collectors. Maybe you're not having a necessary talk with your spouse or another family member.
Here are even more red flags that might apply to you.
- You don't know how much you owe.
- You have no budget or spending plan.
- You carry around or use a lot of credit cards.
- You're being pursued by bill collectors and are receiving past-due notices.
- You're hiding purchases from family members and perhaps having domestic disputes about money.
- You've asked friends or relatives for money -- and perhaps now some of them avoid you.
Why too much debt is such a problem
Most of us need to have an emergency fund and retirement accounts, and many of us have other financial goals, too, such as a round-the-world vacation, a big remodeling job at home, or saving for college. But it's extremely hard to get ahead when you're being pulled in the other direction by debt.
Carrying high-interest rate debt is kind of the opposite of investing for growth. (Low-interest rate debt, such as a mortgage, is not so problematic.) If you owe, say, $20,000, as plenty of people do, and you're being charged an annual interest rate of 25%, as plenty of lenders charge, then you're on very thin ice. You'll owe about $5,000 in interest for just a single year. If you pay just that interest, you still won't have decreased your balance owed by much, so you'll owe a similar steep amount the following year. You'll be treading water, not making any progress, while forking over many thousands of dollars. If you can't manage to pay all the interest you owe, or if you just keep charging more onto your cards, your balance will rise. The bigger it gets, the more you'll owe. See how hard things are getting?
What to do
So if you do have a debt management problem, what can you do about it? Well, for starters, don't despair! Plenty of people have been saddled with more than you and they've dug themselves out of it, too -- even with debt loads topping $100,000! You need to make paying that debt down and eventually paying it all off a priority. It's even worth taking extreme measures to do so, such as getting a part-time job on the side for a while. Other strategies include cutting up your credit cards or freezing them in a block of ice in the freezer, while paying for most things with cash.