If you were dieting to lose weight, you'd know precisely how much you wanted to lose, and how fast you wanted to lose it. You need to be just as specific about your debts. Ask yourself these questions:
• How much do I owe?
• At what interest rates?
• By when would I like to pay it back?
You know that certain diets exclude some foods, at least for a while. The Debt Diet has nine rules to follow if you want the greatest shot at success:
1) Make debit your plastic of choice. When you're using a debit card, you can't spend money you don't have.
2) Slim down your wallet. Take all but one credit card (the one with the lowest interest rate) out of your wallet.
3) Stop shopping online except for groceries. Shopping online for groceries stops impulse purchasing and can save time and money. All other online shopping poses an expensive risk.
4) Stick to a shopping list. Whether you're buying a birthday present or burgers and buns, if an item is not on your list, you didn't think about it in advance. Don't buy it.
5) Make a visit to an ATM only once a week. Cash is even easier to blow through than plastic. Decide how much cash you want to spend each week. Take it out on a Monday and divvy it up into seven parts. Each day, carry one-seventh of the total with you. You're allowed to splurge with the extra you have saved.
6) Pay your bills as they come in, rather than all at once. If you do, you'll have more in savings, less in debt, and you'll be happier. Why? Because if you get a big bill – say for heating, or air conditioning – early in the month, you'll compensate and spend less on other things the rest of the month.
7) Bank online. If you are a believer – as I am – that time is money, then paying bills online saves you a lot of each.
8) Track your spending. Knowing where your money goes – on a daily basis – is your key to succeeding on the Debt Diet. For at least the first month, write down everything you spend: every dollar, every dime. Adding up the expenditures by category – food, clothing, entertainment and so forth – will show you where you have room to cut back.
9) Above all: Don't beat yourself up when you falter. Okay, let's acknowledge that you won’t be able to follow this plan to the letter.
That's why – like a good diet, where one piece of great chocolate can save you from an entire weekend of overeating – this plan allows you occasional splurges. But keep the splurges under control.
You have to be realistic about your money situation. If you can find an extra $10 a day beyond the minimum payments you're making now, you can get rid of an additional $3,650 of debt in one year.
That's a reasonable goal. If you want to try for more, that's great.
But be aware that it takes the average family five years to go through a credit counseling process and emerge with a clean slate.
Jean Chatzky is a regular contributor to “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” the financial editor for NBC's “Today Show” and a contributing editor for “More” magazine. She is the host of a daily radio program on XM, and is the author of four books including "Make Money, Not Excuses" and "Pay It Down!"
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