Tackle, eliminate debt in the new year

Loretto J. Hulse, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 3, 2014 

If lavish spending this past holiday season has left your wallet flat, your debit card worn, it's likely you're feeling some buyer's remorse this month as bills stack up.

"Beginning 2014 with a mountain of debt is one thing that will hold you back from having a prosperous new year," said Brandon Jones.

He's the Eastern Washington division manager for Consumer Credit Counseling Service of the Tri-Cities, a part of Apprisen Financial Advocates, a national organization offering free financial advice.

Your first impulse might be to set the bills aside, hoping they'll go away. But that's the worst thing you can do, said Gloria Lyon, account executive for Transworld Systems in Richland.

She knows -- part of her job is collecting past due accounts for companies. She, too, was once drowning in debt.

That was in the 1980s. Her ex-husband had lost his job and was in the habit of hitting the ATM machine once or twice a day for $20 here, $50 there.

"He never told me when he made a withdrawal so I'd think I had $200 in the account to pay bills but in reality the account was empty," she said.

As their debts mounted, Lyon took a proactive approach and contacted all the companies they owed.

"It's not easy to do, it's humbling," she said. "But every one worked with me, except for one credit card company."

Lyon told the companies she was going to get a second job. That it would take several weeks but with the extra income she'd be able to make partial payments every month. And she did.

"You can't just send $5 or $10 every month, it has to be a substantial amount so the company can see you're making a real effort," she said.

"I didn't go to the movies. I made my own lunch and coffee. I rode the bus from Everett to Seattle where I worked. It wasn't easy but I was able to get things caught up in four or five months," Lyon said.

It was a hard lesson, but one she's never forgotten. And one she shares with many of the people she contacts on behalf of her clients.

In any relationship, usually one person is a spender and the other a saver, Lyon said. She advises counseling when that becomes a problem.

"They need to be on the same page financially, otherwise it causes friction," she said.

One program she and Ryan Bennett, an agent with the Harvey Insurance Agency in Pasco, recommend is Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University, a program offered through many churches. Check it out at www.daveramsey.com.

"A class like Financial Peace University can be good because it can give you a support system and accountability," Bennett said.

"I recommend that people make a plan they can stick with and stick with it. A great reminder I go by is from an old Saturday Night Live sketch -- don't buy stuff you cannot afford. It isn't complicated, but very hard to do," he said.

No matter your goal in 2014, the advice from experts is the same. Start slowly and simply and build from there.

Even if you save just $5 a month, at the end of the year you'll have $60. Perhaps the next year you could make a bigger step, maybe put aside $10 or $20, said Jones at Consumer Credit Counseling.

Jones tells clients to begin planning for the next Christmas even before taking down the tree. Decide how much you want to spend, divide by 12 and put that much away every month.

"Having the money in hand will ease the burden next year," Jones said.

If you're already carrying a hefty balance on your credit cards, Jones offers this advice: analyze your debts and your income, and create a budget.

"That's the only way you'll be able to tell how much money you have to put toward paying them off," Jones said.

Jones usually tells clients to pay off the card with the highest interest rate or the largest balance first, he said.

"Or, if you have some small ones, knock them out to relieve the stress. It's the American way of instant gratification and gives you a sense of making some headway," Jones said.

For help, turn to one of the credit counseling services like Apprisen. They can mediate and often negotiate a lower interest rate or reduced balance.

"Just be sure their services are free. People do not need to pay any money to get those kind of modifications, ever," Jones said.

Apprisen has an office at 401 N. Morain St., Kennewick. You can contact the company at 800-355-2227 and ask for the Kennewick office, or go to www.apprisen.com.

Apprisen will hold a webinar on getting out of debt at 9 a.m. Jan. 28. To register, go to the website.

-- To submit business news, go to bit.ly/bizformtch.

-- Loretto J. Hulse: 582-1513; lhulse@tricityherald.com

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