Going on a Financial Diet

Tuesday, November 1, 2011   /   by Justin Hoffmann

Going on a Financial Diet

Many Americans live on a margin, spending more than they earn, using credit to make up the difference, and saving at near invisible rates.

Living past their means, they use credit to buy houses, cars, and merchandise that many experts would suggest they really can't afford. This "good life" is great, until the person is no longer able to make their payments. And as unemployment rates hover over 9 percent (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), more and more Americans are finding themselves in this predicament and subsequently facing bankruptcy, foreclosure, and even homelessness.

Journalist Laura Rowley, wrote for Yahoo! Personal Finance earlier this year, "Almost half of Americans reported having trouble keeping up with monthly expenses and bills, according to a 2009 survey on by FINRA Investor Education Foundation. Nearly one-quarter reported overdrawing their checking accounts."

Americans are saving at an alarmingly low rate. According to the Bureau of Economic Statistics (BEA), "Personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income was 4.0 percent in May." This is up only 0.2 percent from the month earlier.

Are you one of the millions who need to put your debt on a diet?

It's a hot topic these days. So hot, in fact, that talk show giants, like Oprah Winfrey have featured series on how to reduce debt, increase your savings, and secure your own future.

This financial restructuring just might help you save your home one day. Take a moment to look over these tips.

1. Credit Cards: Financial expert Suze Orman said it best, "You must pay more than the minimum payment every month, as much more as you possibly can. If you owe a credit card company $5000 at 18 percent interest and all you do is pay the minimum each month it will take you over 30 years to pay it off." Call your card companies and try to negotiate a better rate, as well. Pay off the cards with the higher interest rates first.

2. Emergency Fund: In today's economy it is important to be prepared for long stretches of unemployment. Each household should have an emergency fund equal to eight months worth of bills. This means if your expenses for one month equal $3,000, you should have at least $24,000 in savings. Laura Rowley reports, "Only 49 percent of FINRA respondents reported that they had set aside funds sufficient to cover expenses for three months in case of sickness, job loss, economic downturn or other emergency."

3. Wants Versus Needs: The best way to start saving more, is to start spending less. In this country we have created of tradition of expecting bigger and better. It may be time to examine your lifestyle and to be realistic about what you can really afford. And that doesn't mean what payment you can afford, but what you can actually afford to buy.

4. Increase Your Income: There may be extra ways for you to have cash coming in, including selling off unneeded items. If your debts are large, you may consider taking on a second or part-time job. If you are a stay at home parent, perhaps you have skills that will allow you to work part time from your house, such as design work or even baby-sitting.

5. Plan for the future. Many Americans have no retirement savings. Consider changing your priorities from "plenty now" to "enough for the future." Exchange the morning Starbucks for savings bonds and IRAs.

Overall, it's about restructuring how you approach life. The saying, "Money can't buy you happiness," couldn't be more true. You may be surprised that exchanging weekend shopping trips and dinner out for family game nights and home-cooked meals may be a welcome change in your family.

by Carla Hill

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