If there's one thing the recession has taught, it's that most of us could stand to be a wee bit more careful with our cash. But what do you do when your finances have really gone off the rails? Our resident money expert gives three families in trouble her best advice.
FINANCIAL WOES CAN SEEM TO APPEAR OVERNIGHT: Your husband loses his job, the car breaks down, a tax bill is higher than expected. But, in fact, they're typically the product of bad habits adding up -- a combination of everyday missteps and lack of planning that ultimately lands you in a precarious position, ready to be knocked over by the first bit of bad luck. The good news in all this is that no matter how big the mess, you always can make it better.
Exhibit A: Parenting.com's Family Budget Boot Camp, for which our editors matched struggling families with financial planners, and challenged them to do just that (and blog about it!). Below, we share how we think they can start fixing things -- and how you can, too.
"I have $10,000 worth of credit card debt!"
BRONX, NEW YORK
Natasha Greenslade, 24, knows clearly that she owes five figures on some 15 store and credit cards -- at up to a whopping 29 percent interest. What's fuzzier for the mom of two, who lives in a modest apartment with her partner and her boys, ages 1 and 4, is how that happened. "I only buy necessities, like winter clothes for the kids," she says.
In fact, one disconcerting and frustrating truth about debt is that it often results from a steady buildup of small expenses: Using credit for a birthday gift here, a pair of shoes there, can sink you super fast. Perusing Natasha's monthly costs, Gerry O'Donoghue, a financial planner in Mt. Kisco, NY, found she regularly went $200 to $300 over budget. (Catch up with all the boot-campers on Parenting.com.)
Follow the money. You can't get out of debt until you know what you spend and where -- and most people really don't. One simple way to suss out a rough monthly figure: Get a receipt for everything your family buys, even that cup of joe at Starbucks, then stash all those with your bills in a big manila envelope, and tally everything after 30 days. (Remember to print out e-mails documenting auto-payments, and add in some amount for irregular costs, like trips.) Want digital help? Join one of the web's many free budgeting websites -- such as Mint.com or Thrive (justthrive.com).
Cut, cut, cut. You don't have to live without cable, a gym, or a vacation...forever. But you need to take drastic steps to get your expenses down so that you can pay off what you owe, and trimming nonessentials is the best start.
Hide your cards. Or chop them up. You need to get used to living on what you earn.
Start saving. Salt away a small amount -- even $10 or $15 a week -- in a bank account that you can't access with an ATM card. This is your cushion so that when, say, your child's prescription isn't covered, you can pay with cash instead of Visa. Aim for a small cushion of about $500, build it up to $1,000, and eventually -- as you pay off debts -- gather a proper emergency fund of at least three months' worth of living expenses.
Call in help. Paying only the minimum on your cards will just keep you on the debt treadmill, so if you're stretched that tight, it's time to consider debt consolidation. Go to a reputable organization like the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (nfcc.org).