America is a nation that runs on debt, so much so that most U.S. adults owe money in one shape or form. An estimated 75% of U.S. households are now carrying debt, according to new data from LendingTree, and while some of it is the good kind to have, like mortgage and student debt, the most common source is the bad kind -- credit card debt.
Now in an ideal world, we'd all manage to walk around completely debt-free. But usually, there comes a point when we need to borrow money for one reason or another. So rather than pledge to have no debt at all, a more realistic approach is to do what you can to keep your debt load to a minimum. Here's how.
1. Follow a budget
A big reason so many people wind up in debt is that they have no idea where their money is going or what they can actually afford to be spending month after month. A budget, on the other hand, will help you track your expenses and figure out ways to stretch your income so that it covers all of your needs, and even a bunch of your wants.
If you don't have a budget already, creating one is easy. Just list your recurring monthly expenses, factor in one-time expenses, like your annual auto insurance bill, and compare that total to what you bring home in your paychecks. If there's a nice cushion between what you earn and what you spend, you're in good shape. But if you find that you're pretty much spending down each paycheck (or, worse yet, spending more than what your paychecks give you), you'll need to do better.
2. Live below your means
Maybe you can technically afford a $2,000-a-month apartment along with a monthly car payment of $450. But that doesn't mean you should indulge in those expenses if you have the option to secure cheaper transportation and housing. If you choose to take on expenses that monopolize your entire paycheck, you'll have less wiggle room for when unplanned bills fall in your lap. And that opens the door to -- you guessed it -- debt.
As a general rule, you should aim to set aside 15% (or more) of each paycheck for savings, whether it be of the near-term or retirement variety. If your general expenses, therefore, don't exceed 85% of your take-home pay, and you have a month where your car breaks down and requires a costly repair, you might have the wiggle room to pay that expense up front rather than charge it. And that's reason enough to live below your means.
3. Have an emergency fund
Many people land in debt because they don't have savings to cover life's unknowns. But make no mistake about it -- no matter your age or salary, you never know when a financial shock might upend your world, whether it's a period of unemployment or an injury that ends up costing you thousands in medical bills. That's why it's crucial to have a solid emergency fund -- ideally, one with enough money to cover at least three months' worth of living expenses. This way, if an unexpected bill comes your way, or you find yourself unable to work for a stretch, you won't necessarily need to resort to debt.
Keep in mind that three months of living expenses is really just the minimum you should be targeting. A better bet is to sock away six months' worth of living costs for added protection. And if you're in a situation where your income is unpredictable (say, you work for yourself) or you're the sole breadwinner in a household with multiple dependents, you may want to aim even higher.
Whether you're carrying the good kind of debt or the bad kind, the more you have, the more it'll cost you in interest. So don't fall too deeply into that trap. Follow a budget, spend wisely, and always have savings on hand. With any luck, you'll keep your debt to a manageable level, which will not only save you money, but help you sleep better at night.