Often regarded as an unwelcome guest at the front door of American households, debt affects more than just the financial aspects of our life—it's an emotional and mental burden that festers into our relationships and well-being.
As consumer debt continues to rise, NerdWallet's annual study discovered the total amount owed by U.S. consumers has climbed to $11.91 trillion, with the average household owing a little more than $129,000 in total debt.
As the rare all-female investment firm Worley Erhart-Graves Financial Advisors shares, comprehensive financial planning including debt management is a multi-step process designed to provide practical strategies and get you on the path to financial freedom.
With plenty of effective ways for Americans to rid themselves of the heavy debt and its financial toll, we outline tips for the novice Womanista planning for a stress-free and debt-free new year! While it may seem intimidating now, we know freedom and investing is in your future!
Accept Your Debt
Before tackling your debt and the associated stress that comes with it, you need to accept that it's a growing problem. As something that builds up over time, President and CFP Juli Erhart-Graves shares the best way to confront your debt is to write it all down. "When prioritizing what to pay off first, generally you want to first pay off the debt that requires no more than a few months of payments," she says.
While paying these smaller amounts first can be a big motivator for the road ahead, she advises once these are knocked out, pay off debts with the biggest interest rate.
Set Your Goals
We've all heard the saying, "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail." As Erhart-Graves shares, preparing a plan is the first step in reaching your financial goals of living debt-free. As part of the plan, she encourages women to share their goals and plans with trusted family, friends or mentors.
"Ask these people to help keep you accountable," she says. "When you share a goal and have to account for your actions, you are more likely to stay on track."
For most people, accumulated debt is a result of irresponsible overspending. As the firm's CFP Elizabeth Braden counsels, it is crucial to identify spending habits and attitudes about money so you can work toward making changes.
"You can have the best plan and budget in place, but if you don't analyze your spending habits to determine the behaviors leading to overspending, you'll most likely not stick to budget," Braden says. Once factors are recognized, Braden advises to try not to change everything all at once, as it can be overwhelming. Instead, pick one behavior and come up with a solution to better it.
As an example, Braden suggests to create a shopping list and only buy the items on the list, prompting no impulsive purchases and to leave credit cards at home. "If you take $100 to the grocery store to get your items on the list, you'll be much more cost conscious knowing you only have $100 rather than a credit card," she says.
Budgeting is all about priorities and since we have a fixed income, it is essential to prioritize where we spend our money. As you prepare a budget, Erhart-Graves suggests starting with the requirements like housing, transportation, utilities, food, and existing debt payments. As you build out and see whereabouts your money is going, consider the significance of each break down.
"You can't have it all, so figure out what's important to you and accept what you can't have or do," she says.
When to Seek Help
Credit counseling can be a helpful resource for those drowning in debt. Different from debt consolidation and repair services, counseling is one of the key steps consumers can take to manage their money.
"While every situation is different, a consumer may find credit counseling helpful if debt payments are getting to be more than you can handle each month," Braden says.
If you find yourself living paycheck to paycheck or are behind on making payments to creditors, it may be time to seek help with a certified financial planner like those available at a firm like Worley Erhart-Graves. With every case being unique, it is wise to educate yourself and seek guidance as your finances see fit. Consult a professional adviser before implementing any of these options into your finances.
As we head into a new year and look back at our festive expenses, it is essential for consumers to heed valuable debt management advice. To avoid the January money blues and thrive financially all year-round, Erhart-Graves advises consumers to consider opening up a holiday savings account for the next holiday shopping season.
"Determine how much you will spend next holiday season, [and] then save each month toward that amount," she says. "As the next gift-giving season rolls around, pull out the cash you've saved over the previous year—and use the cash instead of credit cards as you shop. The holidays [become] less stressful when you don't have to worry about debt!"