Manage your debt

Learn smart ways to keep your finances in check.

Many Americans carry credit card debt. That's because paying in cash is painful―it's easier to rationalize a purchase when we can say, "I'll pay it off later." There's nothing wrong with carrying some debt if we're meeting or exceeding our monthly minimum payments. (In fact, it's always best to pay more than the minimum payment to reduce finance charges.) But unless we stick to a rigorous payment plan, debt can grow and grow until it's unmanageable. Try these savvy money tips to get your finances in order.

Get a better rate

Call your credit card company and get your interest rate lowered by quoting a competitors' rate and politely informing the representative that you're planning to transfer your balance and cancel your account. (One survey found that more than half the people who placed a five-minute call to their credit card company asking for a lower rate actually got it, and slashed their interest by more than a third.) Of course, you'll have more success if you have a history of paying bills on time.

Be honest about your level of debt

Are you hiding spending and debt from your family? Feeling elevated -- then guilty -- when you borrow? Are you willfully ignorant about what you owe? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might benefit from a program like Debtors Anonymous (DA). DA is a spiritually-based, 12-step program designed to provide "debt addicts" with budgeting, debt repayment plans and peer support. To learn more or to find a chapter in your area, call 781-453-2743 or log on to www.debtorsanonymous.org.

Get help from a debt management service

Look for a low- or no-cost service provided by an accredited nonprofit organization with certified financial counselors. They offer free financial education programs and work with creditors to reduce your interest rates and fees and to set up payment plans. To find a reputable consumer credit counseling agency in your area, contact the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (www.debtadvice.org or 800-388-2227) or the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies (www.AICCCA.org or 800-450-1794). Look for Council on Accreditation (www.coanet.org) approval, and check an agency's record with your local Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org) and state attorney general's office.

Consider your options before you declare bankruptcy

Federal law now requires you to complete credit counseling before declaring bankruptcy, so see if you can work out your money problems without filing for Chapter 7 (which erases your debt but forces you to liquidate assets) or Chapter 13 (which protects your possessions but requires you to pay creditors within a set period). If you can't, at least you'll know you've explored all your options.