Prevent Serious Debt Problems by Taking Action Now

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Manage financial challenges to avoid debt struggles with tips from Bills.com

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In the betting arena, the New York Times reported that the average problem gambler had debt of $17,000 in 2004 -- on an average income of $35,000.

With the U.S. economy reeling from recession, more people are struggling with severe debt, but according to Ethan Ewing, president of free online consumer portal Bills.com, individuals and families can take steps to prevent severe financial hardship.

The economic recession has left 8 million Americans unemployed and 79 million people struggling to pay medical debt. Over time, the top three causes of serious debt hardship are unexpected medical expenses, divorce and job loss.

  •     A 2005 Harvard study found that medical bills account for half of all personal bankruptcies.
  •     Among couples with children, 19 percent of mothers fall into poverty in the year after a divorce.
  •     As U.S. unemployment rates approach 10 percent, millions of Americans face the financial pressures of joblessness.

Other causes of significant debt problems run the gamut and can include everything from education to gambling, Ewing said. "While gaining a college education is a valuable investment, it is a painful reality that average graduates start adult life with education debt of more than $22,000," he said. "In the betting arena, the New York Times reported that the average problem gambler had debt of $17,000 in 2004 -- on an average income of $35,000."

While individuals cannot always eliminate unexpected occurrences, Ewing suggested individuals take certain steps to minimize the risk of severe debt:

1.    Plan ahead with insurance. Before a medical situation arises, if possible, secure the best health insurance available. Seek out a high lifetime maximum and high-coverage percentage after deductible. One costly illness can quickly run through a $1 million maximum.

2.    Think of alternatives. A college education is a worthy investment, but how a student obtains it can vary significantly. Many students can cut costs by living at home while attending school, or attending an affordable community college for two years, then transferring to a more prestigious four-year institution.

3.    Rescale lifestyle. Even those who anticipate that they will soon recover from a financial blow such as a medical incident, divorce or job loss should immediately rescale their lifestyle to live within their current means. "Do not run up unnecessary debt by planning on tomorrow's income to repay it," Ewing cautioned.

4.    Face the facts. People who face mounting debts, such as from a serious illness or injury that runs up hospital bills or leaves them without income, should collect all their bills to learn exactly how much they owe. Then ask each creditor about options for repayment.

5.    Pay critical bills first. The most important payment to make is a mortgage. "If you fall behind on this bill, you could lose your home," Ewing said. "After the mortgage payment, prioritize other secured debt, such as an auto loan, and then credit card bills and other unsecured debt."

6.    Eliminate dangerous habits. "Individuals who sense they have a problem with gambling or other addictions must take a hard look in the mirror and realize their 'entertainment' could ruin them," Ewing warned. Ask a doctor or call the state for resources to help resolve what could be a serious personal problem. And if you have a good friend or family member who has gambling debts spiraling out of control, be a true friend, and step up and talk to them about it.

7.    Choose debt help carefully. For those who are unable to resolve their situation directly with creditors, and who need professional help to negotiate on their behalf, Ewing advised: "Be sure you are working with a reputable debt settlement service that works as an advocate for consumers – vs. a company that may receive its funding from creditors," Ewing said. Obligations of each party should be clearly spelled out from the beginning, with no hidden terms or fees.

"Struggling with tens of thousands of dollars of debt can be a frightening experience," Ewing said. "If you cannot manage debt or other problems on your own, consider seeking out help. Whatever means you choose to move out of debt and forward in life, know that you are not alone, and with time and effort, the future can be brighter."

About Bills.com
Based in San Mateo, Calif., Bills.com is a free one-stop portal where consumers can educate themselves about complex personal finance issues and comparison shop for products and services including credit cards, debt consolidation, insurance, mortgages and other loans. Bills.com holds the No. 257 spot on the Inc. 500 list for 2008, and the No. 3 spot on Entrepreneur Magazine's Hot 100 list of the fastest-growing U.S. companies.

Bills.com and its sister companies, Freedom Debt Relief and Freedom Tax Relief, are wholly owned subsidiaries of Freedom Financial Network, LLC. The company has served more than 50,000 customers nationwide since 2002 while managing more than $1 billion in consumer debt. Its RSS feed is available here.

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Aimee Bennett
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