Scrambling to cover too many bills with too little income is the modern American experience for millions of people. Financial stress is all-consuming, but it is possible to dig out from under your bills and take back some control. It will require introspection, a strategy, discipline and some sacrifice, but financial freedom is worth all that and more.
Last updated: Feb. 8, 2020
Face the Music
Running and hiding is tempting but futile. If your bills have gotten away from you, stop ignoring them. Gather your statements, go through your debt and write down who you owe, what you owe them and what interest rates you’re paying. Check your credit report, not just to confront your score, but to see which accounts are in the worst shape. It might hurt to look at it, but knowing what you’re up against has to be the first step.
Consider Consolidating Your Debt
After looking at your situation, if you’re fighting a war on multiple fronts, you might be able to save money, have lower monthly payments and concentrate on repaying just a single lender if you consolidate your various higher-interest debts and bills with a personal loan. This is particularly helpful in the case of high-interest credit card debt.
Identify the Leaks
To get control over your spending, look for recurring payments on all your credit cards and recurring debits from your checking account. Take inventory of all the payments that come out automatically every month. Subscription prices rise, and something that may have been worth it before might not be now. It’s also not uncommon to sign up for a free version of something, forget to cancel and have an unintended recurring payment get lost in the shuffle. Things like recurring donations and automated bill payments are easy to forget about, but they bleed you steadily over time and they don’t show up on your credit report.
Find Your Weaknesses
Now that you’ve examined your recurring payments, take a good, hard look at where your discretionary income is going. That’s what you have left over after you pay for your necessities and taxes. If you can’t pay your bills, you don’t have a lot of discretionary income. From brewing your coffee at home instead of going to a coffee shop to washing your own car and not eating out, everyone knows the standard personal finance belt-tightening advice. Take it seriously — identify your biggest splurges and stop splurging on them. Or at least splurge less.
Reevaluate Your Subscriptions
Only you can decide if your meditation app — or your call-recording app, your cloud storage, your VPN, your workout app, diet app, music subscription and home security — is absolutely vital. If you’re anything like most people, however, there’s a lot of fat to be trimmed.
Revisit Your Insurance
Car insurance is another recurring payment that’s easy to forget about. Call your insurance company, go over your plan with an advisor and ask if there’s anywhere you could be saving money, maybe with a higher deductible. Tout your good driving record if you have one, and when you’re finished, shop around. Rates go up and down all the time, and new players enter the market. If you find something better, obviously take it, unless you want to give your current insurer an opportunity to match it.
Cut the Cord
The trend toward cord-cutting has long been well documented, and plenty of people continue to forgo cable every year. It’s easy to see why. Cord cutters can save a lot of money and are able to find other ways to watch movies or TV.
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Purge Your Inbox of Temptation
If the search through your payment history reveals a pattern of unnecessary purchases, consider unsubscribing from tempting email lists. When your inbox is a daily barrage of offers, deals and too-good-to-be-true discounts, your shopping demons become more powerful and harder to resist.
Call Your Credit Card Companies
If you have a good payment history, a call to customer service with a request for a lower rate just might get you one, particularly when that request comes with a legitimate claim of financial hardship.
Buy Some Time With a Balance Transfer
Another debt-consolidation strategy is to apply for a new credit card with a 0% APR introductory offer and use that grace period to park your current high-interest debt. Just be mindful that if you do get approved, the clock starts ticking the moment you make the balance transfer. If you don’t pay it off when the introductory rate ends, it springs back to life with the regular APR.
Use Coupon Sites
Getting bombarded with unsolicited offers puts you on defense, but that’s much different than actively seeking out the best prices when you do decide to spend money. Install apps that might help you to search for coupons while you shop online, and visit coupon sites before you do anything, from buying a sweater to going to a movie.
Focus On the Free
When it comes to physical entertainment — leaving the house to do something — there are only two options: the stuff that is free and the stuff that is not. Your city likely has a calendar of events on its website, as does your local, state or regional tourism board. Simply searching online for something like “free events near me” might find you something you want to do.
Get Free Financial Advice
If you feel like you’re in over your head, it’s good to get advice, provided that it’s good advice from people who know what they’re talking about. And that kind of advice doesn’t always have to cost you. In fact, the very people you’re scrambling to pay off — banks, credit unions, credit card companies and other lenders — often offer free financial counseling. Military members or veterans have a range of options for cost-free counseling, and many religious organizations, extension offices and nonprofits offer the same.
Reevaluate Your Mobile Contract
As previously discussed, cable providers are hemorrhaging subscribers to the cord-cutting movement, but they’re not the only ones who exist in an industry defined by stiff competition. Mobile carriers have been waging a fierce battle for subscribers for years, all while competing against new and emerging technologies. Most major carriers have lowered their prices and debuted new and customized plans. Find out if your current provider has a cheaper, better plan than the one you originally signed up for. If not, shop around with other carriers. They just might have something cheaper, and they might even be willing to buy you out of your current plan as an incentive to switch.
Make Your Talent Pay
Aside from just lowering bills and reducing debt, you should also try to attack the problem from the other end by bringing in more money. Same as with expenses, a little extra income can add up quickly. If you have a talent for making something — whether it’s quilts, mailboxes, vases or anything else — join the ever-growing ranks of people who make their talent pay by selling stuff online. If you work a 9-to-5, dedicate one weekend day per week to learning how to sell things online, then put your talent to work.
Add Some Gravy Another Way
If you don’t have a knack for creating physical objects to sell, find a service you’re willing to perform in exchange for money on the side instead. One of the most famous go-to side hustles is driving for ride-sharing companies, but you don’t necessarily have to leave the house to earn a little gravy. You can freelance a skill like translating, bookkeeping or web designing. You can tutor, walk dogs or nanny part time. Either way, the principle remains the same as before — if you have two days off, commit one to bringing in some extra money on the side.
Sell Your Stuff
Selling your stuff online has been done by plenty of people, but there are still many other — and often easier — options. There are apps out there that let you hold online garage sales, offloading unused stuff in exchange for cold hard cash with fairly minimal effort.
Do your part for both the environment and your wallet by putting more people in fewer cars when the people are all going to the same place. Generations of commuters have used carpooling as a way to save money on gas, tolls and automotive wear and tear.
The single best way to save time and money on commuting is not to commute at all. Working from home is one of the most coveted and commonly requested benefits, so more employers are offering it when they can, at least on a some-of-the-time basis. Ask your human resources department if it’s possible to work a few days a week from home — you’ll save commuting costs and free up time for your side hustle.
Rent Your Car
Just as you can make money by driving people around, you can also rent your car to people who would rather drive it themselves. Peer-to-peer (P2P) car-sharing apps let the carless rent vehicles from people looking to make money off their cars – and it lets cash-strapped car owners put their vehicles to work for them when they’re not in use.
Rent Your House
You can also apply the car-sharing concept to your entire house, which you can rent while you’re away for the weekend, the week or the month. Whichever way you go about renting out your living space, you can do so by giving up a room or your entire home.
Get an Energy Audit
The U.S. Department of Energy offers advice and contacts for anyone interested in a home energy audit. If you have unreasonably high energy bills, that’s you. You’ll want to get information on both DIY audits and those handled by the pros. Either way, the point is to find the energy vampires in your home, many of which can be fixed with things as cheap and easy as weatherstripping and in-window air conditioner covers. Some people might qualify for reduced-cost or even free energy audits.
Consider a Different Bank or Credit Union
Whether you’re already banking at a bank or credit union, you can always consider switching to benefit your finances or get better perks that fit your needs. You might find better rates at a different financial institution. And even if you can’t find a way to save money through a new bank or credit union, you could find that the customer service and trustworthiness at a new financial institution is better than where you currently are banking. After all, having a good relationship with your banker could save you even more money in the long run.
If you’re barely able to keep up with your current bills, you’re probably not saving for the future, and that will certainly come back to bite you down the road whether you get your arms around your expenses or not. The old adage of “pay yourself first” remains sound advice, even when creditors want a piece of you from every angle. Another old saying that’s never lost relevance is to “treat saving like a bill.” If you classify savings the same way you classify paying bills — as a non-negotiable necessity — you’ll find a way to pay yourself, the same as you find a way to keep the lights on and pay the rent.
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About the Author
Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning writer, Andrew was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, the Gannett News Service. He worked as the business section editor for amNewYork, the most widely distributed newspaper in Manhattan, and worked as a copy editor for TheStreet.com, a financial publication in the heart of Wall Street’s investment community in New York City.