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Debt Warning Signs, and Ways to Dig Out

Four clues you've taken on too much debt, and four tips to get out from under it.

Over the past decade, Americans have racked up an increasing amount of debt. In fact, household debt has steadily eaten up a bigger slice of personal incomes since the mid-'90s, according to the Federal Reserve Board.

So how do you know if you are carrying too much debt?

Here are four clues that you've taken on too much debt, and four tips to get out from under it.

Clue No. 1. A high debt-to-income ratio.

The debt-to-income ratio is calculated by dividing your monthly debt payments (excluding mortgage or rent) by your monthly income. Many credit counselors believe that a debt-to-income ratio of 15% to 20% is a sign of trouble. Any higher and you already have too much debt.

Clue No. 2. No savings.

Your budget is stretched too thin if you can't manage to set any money aside in savings. You should be able to meet your debt obligations while still saving money in a 401(k) or other retirement account, an emergency fund or even a general savings account.

Clue No. 3. Over the limit.

Straying over your credit limit once but paying it down right away isn't a problem. But if you are struggling to pay down your credit card balances and are consistently close to maxing out any of your cards, then that is a problem. This is especially true if you continue to use credit cards despite barely covering the minimum payments.

Clue No. 4. Worrying about debt.

If you stress over paying bills and making payments on your debt, it's clear you have a problem. Even if you think you are better off than others, consider seeking help the moment it starts impacting your everyday life.

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Tips on Digging Out

The first step to getting out from under that debt is to admit there's a problem. This means taking a hard look at your spending and saving habits, and taking action to get out of debt.

Tip No. 1. Prioritize your bills.

Write down exactly how much you owe and what your monthly bills look like. Prioritize this list so that bills covering your health, food and shelter (mortgage or rent payments) are at the top. No matter what happens, those are the bills that need to get paid first -- getting sick or losing your home will make it even harder to dig out of debt.

Tip No. 2. Stop using credit cards.

Cut them up, freeze them in a block of ice or feed them to a wood chipper. Just plain stop relying on credit. Limiting yourself to cash will help control your spending by forcing you to account for the money you spend when you spend it, rather than dealing with it months down the road.

Tip No. 3. Set up a plan to pay down your debt.

Call creditors to whom you've made late payments in order to work out lower rates, or get them to waive fees or set up a new payment plan. Most creditors are willing to help, but you have to ask first. When paying down credit card debt, target those with the highest interest rates first before moving to the next highest, and the next. (For more, check out

Pay Down Your Consumer Debt


Tip No. 4. Get help.

Credit counseling services are available to help you review your spending habits and work out an affordable debt repayment plan. But be careful: many organizations charge too much and recommend illegal solutions that leave you worse off than where you are now. To find a reputable debt-counseling agency in your area, search the

National Foundation for Credit Counseling

Web site under "First Steps." (For more help on choosing a credit counselor, check out

Now More Than Ever, Dig Out of Debt


Peter McDougall is a freelance writer who lives in Freeport, Maine, with his wife and their dog.