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Is your debt out of control?

How do you know when you have a debt problem and need help to get it under control? Here are some guidelines to assess your financial situation.
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You can't sleep. You jump when the phone rings. For you, four of the scariest words in the English language are "Your statement is enclosed." And it's all because, as National Foundation for Credit Counseling spokeswoman Gail Cunningham says, "the dark cloud of debt follows you around 24/7."

In some cases, a little financial belt tightening or a few accelerated credit card payments are enough to get that cloud to dissipate. But sometimes a debt crisis becomes too overwhelming to handle on your own. How do you know when you need help to get it under control? The tipping point won't be the same for everyone, but here are some general guidelines to assess your situation.

Minimum payment syndrome
Your debt-to-income ratio is one important tool in evaluating your financial health.

"We recommend that people's debt load be no more than 20 percent of their take-home pay," Cunningham says. "That includes the vehicle. So, if you bring home $1,000 per month, and you've got a $200 a month car payment, you'd better not owe anybody else. We also recommend that your housing expense not be over 30 percent."

Another clue is how much of your debt you pay each month. The NFCC created a quiz called "How Do I Know If I'm In Financial Trouble?" consisting of 20 true-or-false statements. If more than two or three ring true, you may need credit counseling, the foundation says. Statement No. 1 in the quiz is, "I normally pay only the minimum due on my credit card bills."

Now that the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act is in effect, every bill comes with a bracing reminder of the consequences of that practice. Credit card issuers have to disclose how long it will take customers to wipe out a debt by making only the minimum monthly payments.

"The reality is that it will probably take you decades to pay off that debt," Cunningham says.

A related reality check can creep up after a long period of making interest-only payments on a loan.

"If someone is only paying the interest and the debt keeps increasing because he's not paying down any of the principal, it just snowballs," says Carol Friedhoff, a financial planner at Savvy Outcomes in Dublin, Ohio. "At some point, you cannot even afford to pay the interest."

Credit spending addiction
Barbara Wright, a credit counselor with ClearPoint Financial Solutions in Chesapeake, Va., points to three more red flags. If you find yourself calling credit card issuers to check your available credit, constantly using your credit card as extra income or paying for things on credit that you used to buy with cash like groceries, your debt habit may be out of control, she says.

Simply paying off your balance may not be enough to ensure your recovery from this addiction. "Paying the credit card off is a good thing, but then going back and recharging on it is not," Wright says.

Even worse is piling on debt when you're already overwhelmed. "If you are in a bad situation but you are continuing to add debt, that's also a bad sign," Friedhoff says. "At some point, you need to stop spending."

Getting help
Even if you realize you need help, it's probably tempting to delay seeking it — the same way you avoid opening those bills. But Cunningham says it's a big mistake to put things off.

"Delay only exacerbates the problem," Cunningham says. "As soon as they see some warning flags go up, we suggest that they seek out a credit counselor for help."

A credit counseling session begins with a discussion of your overall financial situation, with an aim toward identifying your biggest areas of concern. Living expenses like rent, mortgage payments, utilities and food are tackled first, followed by secured debts like car loans, and then payments on credit card debt.

If you are running low on funds after covering your basic living expenses, the credit counselor may suggest creating a debt management plan. Under this scenario, your creditors agree to lower monthly payments and may temporarily waive or lower your interest payments, late fees or overlimit fees.

Last resorts
"There are only two exit ramps left on the debt highway if a debt management plan will not work, both of which are very serious financial decisions," Cunningham says. "One is debt settlement and one is bankruptcy."

Unlike the debt management plan in which consumers must pay 100 percent of what they owe, debt settlement involves creditors agreeing to take less. The best way to go about it, according to Cunningham, is to avoid the debt settlement companies offering their services for a fee and go straight to your creditors to work out a deal. "Why pay for something that you can do for yourself for free?" Cunningham says.

If personal bankruptcy seems to be your only viable recourse, a nonprofit credit counseling agency affiliated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling can help you navigate the process.