6. Procrastinating on creating an emergency fund
Learn to save for financial emergencies. Even if you feel robust and invincible, a single emergency room trip or car accident could force you to put large balances on credit cards, causing interest to accrue and more debt to pile up. "That rainy day will happen," Cunningham says. "It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when." If your tire goes flat and you can't pay upfront for the replacement, for instance, you're stuck with charging it or reducing funds earmarked for necessities. That's where the emergency fund fits in.
Try this: Maintain an emergency fund of at least three to six months' worth of living expenses, and keep your insurance policies up to date. Work toward that goal by socking away 10% of your take-home pay each month in a liquid savings account, says Cunningham. If you receive a raise or bonus, add that money to savings. Since you're not used to the extra cash flow, you won't miss it.
7. Paying bills in no particular order
While the order may not matter if you can pay all of the balances, it will matter if you fall short one month. Say you pay off the balances on your credit cards first, then find you can't make the minimum on your house payment or monthly rent. You've put the roof over your head at risk.
Try this: "Pay for living expenses first," says Cunningham. After the house or rent payment, necessities such as utilities, groceries and medical care should top the priority list. Next comes the car payment -- you want to avoid repossession, obviously. On down the line, secured loans and co-signed debts follow in importance, then unsecured loans and credit cards. "Ideally, everyone can get paid, but if a choice has to be made, paying in this order will do a better job of keeping the home life stable."
Work out a bill payment schedule and set aside money from each paycheck (see No. 9 below).
8. Charging purchases instead of paying in cash or with a debit card
How many times have you charged services or merchandise when you had the money to pay with cash or debit? Insignificant purchases of $20 and $30 made several times over can quickly add up, particularly if you already carry a balance. Balances you can't pay off each month mean paying interest charges and, subsequently, more money for items you could have bought outright, interest-free.
Try this: Make a habit of paying for purchases under $50 with cash, debit or check. Knowing that the money has to clear the bank sooner could help curb your spending habits. Just be sure to check your balance regularly to ensure that you have enough funds.
9. Making credit payments late
After all, it's only a $39 late fee, right? Besides wasting money you could've put toward the balance, a payment that arrives at least 30 days past due can throw your account into default and triple your interest rate. Plus, other creditors may start charging you a default interest rate as well, thanks to a universal default clause buried in your contract.
"Creditors are constantly reviewing your credit activity, and if they see you falling behind with one creditor, even if you have a perfect payment history with them, they can raise your interest rate," Cunningham says.
Try this: On a calendar, mark upcoming paydays and payments that should come out of that paycheck, she says. If you're mailing payments, send them seven to 10 business days in advance. Better yet, sign up for online bill pay. Just check that the address on file and the address on the statement match, or the payment might not arrive on time. If you're still late, call the creditor, explain the situation and ask them to forgive the late fee. Check your credit report and be sure the information shows up correctly.
10. Making the minimum payment only
Paying the minimum is better than paying nothing, but it doesn't do much to pay off most balances and forces you to keep paying interest. By paying interest on interest, you lose any savings from buying a dress on sale, Cunningham says.
Try this: If you can afford to pay more or in full, go ahead and pay as much of the balance as you can. You never know when you're going to have a tough month. Pay in full every month and you can avoid interest charges altogether.
Or, if paying more than the minimum proves difficult, consider working an extra part-time job or decreasing your expenses -- or both, says Cunningham. Put all of your extra earnings toward the debt. Use the minimum payment calculator to see how much you're saving in interest charges.
This story was reported by Leslie Hunt for Bankrate.com.
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