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Becoming Debt Free

This year, choose a smart resolution that will positively impact your pocketbook and your peace of mind. Make a pledge to reduce your debt and boost your credit score. Lowering the amount of debt you carry can significantly improve your credit profile, reduce the loan rates you could receive and save you a lot in interest payments. It just takes a few easy steps and a little dedication to take charge of your debt.

  1. Get the Facts - Collect all your account, loan and credit information and go over the records with a fine tooth comb. Write down the monthly payment, debt amount, interest rate and term of each debt on a sheet of paper. Next, write down your total monthly income and list your estimated monthly expenses. Order your Credit Report and Credit Score online to get a baseline for tracking your improvements.

  2. Do the Math - Calculate how much you usually spend paying each debt and how much interest that debt collects per month. Define which debts need to be paid off first. Credit card debt and small loans should probably be paid before low-rate student loans and home loans. Answer the following questions to help you prioritize your debts:

    Which debts have the highest interest rates?
    Are there accounts above 50% of their credit limit?
    Do you have any debts that are close to being paid off?
    Which debts have the highest annual fees?

  3. Negotiate and Consolidate - Start working on those high-interest credit card debts first. Call your creditors and negotiate lower interest rates or move your balances to less expensive credit cards. Accounts that are above 50% of the available line of credit can harm your credit score; pay off or move some of the balance to a different card. If you have a credit card debt that is too large to handle, consider taking out a personal loan from your bank for the amount. Your bank can probably give you a much lower rate and a more lenient payment schedule.

  4. Refinance - After taking control of your credit card and small debts, take a look at your major loans. Would it make sense to refinance your mortgage? Could you consolidate some of your other debts into the loan? What about cashing out some home equity to pay off a high-interest debt?

  5. Stick to the Plan - Now that you have lowered your rates and refinanced your loans, create a payment schedule and a monthly budget. See exactly how much you can afford to pay each month by subtracting your expenses from your monthly income. Divide the remaining amount between the accounts, paying the most to the debts with the shortest terms and highest interest rates. Create a payment calendar with the due dates and the payment amounts you just calculated for each bill. Sign up for automatic bill payment through your bank or register for online payments to keep you on schedule. To continue to keep your credit on track, register for Credit Monitoring online and you'll receive quarterly credit reports, credit alert emails and trending charts that outline how much your credit improves over time. Set goals for yourself and don't forget to celebrate when you reach debt-removal milestones!

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Today's Story
"My purse was stolen in December 1990. In February 1991, I started getting notices of bounced checks. About a year later, I received information that someone using my identity had defaulted on a number of lease agreements and bought a car. In 1997, I learned that someone had been working under my Social Security number for a number of years. A man had been arrested and used my SSN on his arrest sheet. There's a hit in the FBI computers for my SSN with a different name and gender. I can't get credit because of this situation. I was denied a mortgage loan, employment, credit cards, and medical care for my children. I've even had auto insurance denied, medical insurance and tuition assistance denied." - From a consumer complaint to the FTC, January 2, 2001
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