Many people struggle to pay their bills on time. Nearly one in 10 Americans have debts in collection.

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Thanks to credit cards, student loans and auto financing, consumer debt in the U.S. topped $4 trillion for the first time in February, according to the Federal Reserve, impacting the overall financial health of everyday Americans. What’s more, many people struggle to pay their bills on time: nearly one in 10 Americans have debts in collection, according to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling’s 2018 Consumer Financial Literacy Survey.

Stacey Black, a financial educator at BECU, says getting on top of debt is not only possible, but necessary to maintain a good credit score and remain financially healthy. If you’re one of the many Americans struggling with debt, there is help and steps you can take to get back in control of your finances.

Get motivated

The first step? Black suggests listing out all of your debt in one spot, including the total amount of the loan or credit card, the interest rate and the minimum payments. Then, decide which to pay off first using a method like the “debt snowball.”

“A ‘debt snowball’ might sound like it refers to debt accumulation, but it’s actually the opposite,” says Black. She recommends looking at the list and picking one loan or credit card, typically the account with the lowest balance, and make it your goal to pay that one off first.

“Not only will those small successes continue adding up, but you’ll feel energized and confident by the momentum, too,” says Black. Another option is to focus on paying off the loan with the highest interest rate first, which allows your dollar to go further with each payment you make, saving you money down the line.

Autopay is your friend

“One-quarter of Americans don’t pay their bills on time, which is a really good way to see debt grow instead of shrink,” Black explains. “Missing payments can also lower your credit score quite significantly and can remain on your credit report for seven years.”

The solution? Set up automatic monthly payments that address at least the minimum balance on each of your bills and loans to ensure you don’t miss a payment.

Avoid future debt

It might sound counterintuitive, but one of the biggest goals while paying off debt should be starting and building a savings account. Over half of U.S. adults struggle to minimize their debt primarily because of unexpected financial emergencies, according to the NFCC survey. Black says setting aside even a little bit of money each month into an emergency fund can help ensure you don’t need to rely on using credit cards for these expenses.

“This will come in handy the next time your car breaks down or you have another financial emergency,” explains Black. “We recommend saving between 10% to 30% of your income, but realize it’s not possible for everyone. What’s most important is to save something and simply get into the habit of saving.”

Stacey Black, BECU
Stacey Black, BECU

Track your spending

If you need help finding extra money in your budget, there are many different online tools to track spending each month, like BECU’s Money Manager and Debt Pay-Off Calculator. Black suggests looking at your expenses for an entire month to find areas where you might be able to save.

“Add up your purchases into different categories, like ‘food and drinks’ and ‘housing,’ and you may be surprised by how much you spend on certain things each month,” Black explains. “This will help you notice patterns and identify areas where you could spend less. Plus, that’s more money to put toward your next debt payment or savings account.”

Ask for help

Still overwhelmed by it all? See if your financial institution has a program that can help you figure out the best way to reduce your debt. For example, BECU offers a Financial Health Check, a free phone consultation with trained specialists to help its members make financial decisions and take actions in real-time.

“Whether it’s tackling debt, starting to save money or both, the most important step to reaching your financial goals is to figure out which strategy works for you. Where will you be most motivated to continue?” Black says.

As a member-owned credit union, BECU is focused on helping increase the financial health of its members and communities through better rates, fewer fees, community partnerships and financial education.