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The $750 Billion Secret

Credit Wise (featured column)
by Jennifer Wallis

Next time you’re at the mall or grocery store, look around. How many of those people do you think are paying cash for their purchases? If they use a credit card, will they pay it off at the end of the month? With American credit card debt topping $750 billion, chances are that many of those people are buying things that they can’t afford. According to the most recent study by the Federal Reserve, 43% of all families spend more than they earn every year. It’s no surprise that personal bankruptcies have doubled in the past decade, topping 1.6 million last year, according to the US Bankruptcy Courts.

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So, if nearly half of us are spending more than we make, is it the person behind you in line or is it you who is carrying around the debt secret? Most importantly, if debt is such a huge problem, why does it have to be a secret at all? If 43% of Americans had an ailment, wouldn’t there be a vigorous nationwide outcry to eradicate the problem and find a cure?  Instead, people who are struggling with debt hide it like a shameful secret, which makes it much more difficult to ask for help.

Maybe it’s time for all of us to stop and think for a minute. Remember that neighbor or friend who always seems to have a newer car, bigger house, and cooler clothes? You’ve probably heard the joke that “He who dies with the most toys, wins.” Before you let yourself covet the things that he has, consider the fact that he probably financed it. Even though the car may be sitting in his garage, it’s really just borrowed until he pays for it.

Many of us spend so much time trying to keep up with the neighbors that we never stop to consider the fact that we may be envying someone who is actually a pretty bad money manager. Your neighbor may have a smile on his face as he’s surrounded by all of his “toys” but he may be torn up on the inside from the stress of being in debt.

As a credit counselor who has worked in an affluent suburb, I can tell you without a doubt that the more you make, the more you spend. While someone may bring home $10,000.00 per month, you never know by looking at him that he is spending $12,000.00.

If you find yourself overwhelmed with debt, here’s how to cope:

You are not alone

The first step in dealing with the stress of being in debt is to realize that you are not alone. While the amount you owe may seem overwhelming, it’s a pretty safe bet that all $750 billion in credit card debt does not belong to you alone. This should be a pretty good indication that many other people are exactly in the same situation.

You are not stupid

Credit card companies collected nearly $80 billion in fees and interest last year. Make no mistake: it’s big business. Just open a magazine, surf the Internet, turn on the TV or simply open your mailbox and chances are you will see an ad for a credit card. Everywhere we turn, Americans are being marketed for debt. If you were never taught strict money management discipline, it isn’t something that you naturally know how to do.

You may need help and that’s OK

Debt counseling agencies are also a multi-million dollar industry. That means that hundreds of thousands of people just like you get into debt every year and ask for help to get out. For help finding a reputable company, please click here.

You can learn from your mistakes

The most important thing you can do if you find yourself digging your way out of debt is to learn from your mistakes. There is certainly no shame in taking a college course to learn more about business or any other subject. Many community agencies, churches and credit counseling agencies offer free and low-cost money management classes. In these classes, you will learn sound money management advice and tips to avoid falling into the debt trap again.

Consider sharing your story with others

If you are fortunate enough to get yourself back on the road to financial health, consider sharing your story with others you know may be struggling financially. You can serve as an inspiration to others who may desperately need help.

Debt has traditionally been a taboo subject and that may never change. However, if we look at the statistics, millions of people are walking around with the burden of being in debt combined with the fact that it’s a problem they don’t feel comfortable talking about. If you are one of those suffering in silence, please know that it’s unnecessary. There are places you can turn and people who will help you without judging you. For all of us, we can learn never to judge other people and to work together as a community to solve this silent epidemic.

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Copyright © 2004 by Jennifer Wallis. All rights reserved.

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