Even small cuts make a difference, so examine your costs in these 10 areas first.
If you find yourself falling deeper into credit card trouble, it's time to take a hard look at what's coming in, what's going out and see where you can free up some cash quickly to start hacking away at your debt.
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Some trims may seem small, but if you package several of them together, you can soon get started on a respectable payment plan.
Here are some ideas for places to turn first.
1. Cell Phones
"For $9.88, you can buy a TracFone (prepaid cell phone) with pretty decent coverage and pay by the minute," says Mike Sullivan, director of education at Take Charge America in Phoenix. "And if you're careful, you can end up saving $40 to $50 a month off a typical $80 cell phone bill." He also recommends canceling your land line unless you have medical issues that may require emergency calls.
Most people can save money just by getting rid of the extra pay packages they have -- such as premium movie channels and extra services. "If you're really in trouble, cancel the whole package," Sullivan says. Check out the library for free movies, DVDs and CDs to bridge the entertainment gap.
3. Homeowners Insurance and Car Insurance
By increasing the deductible of your policy from $500 to $1,000, you can see big decreases on your premium, says Michael Barry, vice president of media relations for Insurance Information Institute in New York. "People pay about $880 a year, so if I can knock $88 off, it's a start." Regarding auto insurance, take a look at your collision insurance if you have an older car. If you have even a fender-bender, sometimes the cost to repair the car would be more than it's worth, so perhaps you could cancel the collision insurance altogether. First, look up the value of the car at Kelley Blue Book, Edmunds.com or the National Automobile Dealers Association, then check the collision line on your auto insurance bill and see what it's worth to you to keep that insurance. Also, if you don't drive that car much, look for a discount. "If you drive from 7,000 to 7,500 miles a year, you can often qualify for low-mileage discounts," Barry says.
Americans are increasingly finding alternatives here. In fact, consumers spent 11 percent less last year in this category, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' 2009 Consumer Expenditures Survey released in October. If you have more than one car, this may be the time to look at downsizing to just one car and getting around with better planning, carpooling, bike riding, public transportation or car sharing. Car-sharing companies such as Zipcar operate in a growing number of cities and on many university campuses. You can rent a car by the hour when you have to have one without the expense of insuring and maintaining your own car.
"People often overlook programmable thermostats," says Edward Tonini, director of education of Alliance Credit Counseling in Charlotte, N.C. "You can spend $20 to get a programmable thermostat and if you set it right, it can save you $100 over the course of a year easily."
Households spent an average of just more than $300 a month on food eaten at home and about $215 per month on food outside the home in 2009, the BLS survey reported. "Maybe eating out isn't necessary for you," Tonini says. "Packing lunches and eating at home will lower your discretionary spending."
7. Gym Membership
Are you really using it multiple times a week? Divide your monthly dues by the number of times you go in a month and get a realistic picture of what you're spending on a one-hour workout. Park districts or community centers often have low-cost or free programs. Also check into exercise videos or a piece of home exercise equipment that you would use regularly. If you decide to keep the membership, check to see whether the facility offers discounts for coming at off-peak times.
A family of four can quickly rack up nearly $100 on one movie with popcorn, drinks and maybe even parking fees. "Instead of going to the movies, have a game night at home. It sounds kind of corny, but it will be more meaningful than sitting in the dark when you can't talk to each other," says Dave Gilbreath, a regional director with Apprisen Financial Advocates in Yakima, Wash.
9. Tax Relief
Wendy Burkholder, executive director of Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Hawaii in Honolulu, says, "Many of the families we work with are struggling with credit card debt because of loss of income. One of the first things to do is re-evaluate your tax withholding on your paycheck (if your spouse or partner has lost a job). If you don't make the change, you end up with a whopping refund. You don't need the money a year from now, you need it now." If you're overpaying taxes, you're also giving the government a free loan and are likely putting off paying for your own bills, which can lead to fees and penalties, she says.
10. Health Insurance for Dependents
"If you're struggling with loss of income, you may no longer be able to afford $600 being deducted from a paycheck to cover your dependents," Burkholder says. She suggests checking to see whether you now qualify for a state or federal coverage plan for dependents, such as the Children's Health Insurance Plan, or coverage by health care providers that may offer reduced prices for basic health care for children.
Deciding what to cut first will be different for every consumer, but whatever the choice, it should be sustainable, rather than a one-time quick fix, Tonini says. Sometimes it's cutting out the daily $4 coffee, but "they need to figure out what their 'latte factor' is."