Feeling like you have no money? You have lots of company. In fact, nearly 40% of Americans are carrying credit card debt from one month to the next, while 1 in 4 admits they don't pay all of their bills on time.
That information comes from the latest financial literacy survey from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
The organization represents thousands of debt counselors, who offer these top nine reasons for that financial hole you're in -- plus some tips for climbing out.
1. Spending more than you make
The basic math is hard to ignore. If you spend more than you earn, you need debt to cover the difference. Life gets harder and harder as the debts rack up and more of your hard-earned cash goes to interest payments.
There are smart ways to use debt to get ahead, but many of us fall victim to debt problems, especially young people. The keys to financial success are budgeting, saving and investing. Don’t spend more than you earn — save your money.
The only true way to get rich and stay there is saving, investing and spending wisely.
2. Making poor choices in college
You may think you know your passion, but does it pay? It’s worth it for a college student to do a cost-benefit analysis of any career choice before signing up for tens of thousands of dollars in education debt.
Students also shouldn't resort to taking out loans until they've used every penny of grant money that's available. Many Americans forgo government grant money every year, simply because they don’t fill out the application forms.
So, be wary of education debt, and choose your degree carefully. Do you even need a degree? Some jobs that pay well don't require one.
3. Letting them hit you with late fees
It’s expensive to fall into the late fee trap. If you stretch your income past its limit, you will find yourself paying bank overdraft fees, charges for tardy credit card payments and similar penalties that can add up quickly.
Knowing the fees is half the battle; make sure you read the fine print on any monthly subscriptions, loan documents and utility contracts.
Punitive late fees are the last thing you need when you live paycheck to paycheck, but it’s not fun to pay them at any level of income. Plan out your spending to avoid any unnecessary fees or penalties.
4. Choosing the wrong car for your budget
Owning a ride is one of the finer pleasures in adult life. The open road offers freedom and adventure, and it sure beats public transit with the huddled masses, right? Not so fast — a car can be an albatross when it comes to finances.
Insisting on buying a new car every few years is an expensive habit. Buying new is more expensive up front, plus you'll face higher insurance premiums.
But a used car with problems can often cost more than a cheap, reliable new car. Do the math, check out the research and make sure you can afford your car before you talk to any sales people!
5. Falling into the credit card habit
Who doesn’t love plastic? It makes life very convenient. Unfortunately, more of us are failing to pay off our credit card balances in full each month and wind up paying interest rates that are often among the highest you can find.
The National Foundation for Credit Counseling says 16% of U.S. adults rolled over $2,500 or more in credit card debt per month in 2017, up from 14% in 2016.
Credit card debt is a common reason that people end up in the offices of credit counselors. Think twice before charging! And get a zero-interest balance transfer card to help you deal with the debt.
6. Getting sick
Life is hard enough when you become sick, injured or disabled, but medical bills can pile up higher and faster than you'd ever expect. A short hospital stay or minor surgery can take a big bite out of any wallet, even if you have good insurance.
Many Americans find themselves crushed by copayments, off-plan expenses and deductibles. Credit counselors see clients with medical debt all the time, and it remains one of the most common reasons to file for personal bankruptcy in America.
So, take care of yourself — especially your teeth and your overall fitness.
7. Having no savings
America's savings rate went up after the Great Recession, but now it's falling as credit becomes more available and people warm up to debt again. Many families fail to save enough income to buffer themselves against emergencies and bad luck.
About a quarter of all Americans have no emergency savings, a Bankrate survey found, and the National Foundation for Credit Counseling says a similar share of U.S. adults aren't saving for retirement.
Without emergency savings or retirement planning, life is very fragile. Accidents happen, and it’s important to have rainy-day savings to help you in a pinch. When you retire, Social Security won't be enough to live on — you need savings, too.
8. Not bothering with budgeting
Budgeting is the single most important factor in financial success. If you don’t know what’s happening to your money, you can’t make informed decisions.
There’s no right way to keep a budget: paper ledgers, Excel sheets, online software (e.g. Mint, YNAB) or whatever you want to use. The key is to document your budget, track your spending, and stick to the plan.
One of the first steps in credit counseling is a budgeting session. A good budget can help you build credit, repair your debt situation and help you save for the future. Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to your money.
9. Missing out on compound interest
Albert Einstein allegedly once said that "compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world." The power of compounding investment (in which the interest on your savings earns interest, too) is the basis of smart retirement planning.
Earning interest upon interest upon interest can create powerful returns for even modest portfolios over decades of saving. But the same math that helps you on the saving side can be your downfall on the debt side.
Learn how compounding works, and use its power to your benefit. It’s extremely powerful, especially over time. Let compound interest work for you, save your money, and avoid the pitfalls of excessive debt.
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