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Two years behind on credit card payments

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To Her Credit 
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006).

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Question for the CreditCards.com expertDear To Her Credit,
I have credit card debt with about five or six cards. Not only am I behind, but I have not made any payments since 2006. The reason I went into debt was because when I was pregnant, I had some things going on. I was uncomfortable working because I was afraid of losing the baby. He's just now a year old, and I am trying to get back on track so I can take care of my debt and get things right. I just started working again. I have two kids and a small income. What do you suggest?
-- Ashley

Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Ashley,
The early years of child-rearing are personally very rewarding, but they can also be stressful financially -- especially if you have health issues. I had a similar experience when my daughter was a baby, so I know how hard it is to get back on your feet financially while caring for small children.

It can be done, however. I recommend the following three steps:

Step 1: Find out exactly where you stand. Make a list of your credit card bills, including the balances, minimum payments and interest rates.

Step 2: Find more money. Are you having too much income tax withheld from your pay? Should you be getting the advance earned income credit? (Check out the IRS website for more information.)  Could you make a few extra dollars, for example, by watching an additional child occasionally? Can you sell something?

Step 3: Make the best use of your money by cutting expenses and taking care of your debt.

I doubt you're a big spender on your small income. (I'm assuming you can't use your cards.) When you weren't working, you probably lived on very little. If you resist spending more now that you have some income, you should be fine.

Now, tackle that debt. Under these circumstances, you may want to try to get the balances reduced. I believe in paying for the goods and services I receive. However, if you haven't made any payments in two years, no doubt a large portion of what you owe is not from what you bought. A large portion of it is from late fees, overdraft fees, interest, and the snowballing effect of all three. The banks may be willing to negotiate some of those fees. CAUTION: You may see ads for places that promise to lower your credit card debt for you -- for a price, of course. You don't need them. You're far better off talking to your creditors yourself. If you want financial counseling, look for a reputable, nonprofit organization near you. See the National Foundation for Credit Counseling to find a credit counselor near you.

Take the list you made of your credit card debts and start paying as much as you can to the credit card with the highest interest rate. Make the minimum payments on the other cards. As you pay off each card, start paying the one with the next highest interest rate. If the rates on two cards are equal, pay off the card with the smallest balances first. That will lower your total monthly minimum payment and give you a feeling of accomplishment.

Consider taking a personal loan, perhaps from a family member, to pay off your debts. As hard as it can be to ask for a loan, you could pay a fair rate of interest to a relative and still climb out of debt much faster than you can while paying outrageously high interest rates. Put everything on paper, of course, to avoid misunderstandings.

Tough times don't last forever. The most important thing for you to remember is that many other people have been through similar circumstances and survived. You will, too.

Sally Herigstad writes about women and credit every week for CreditCards.com. Herigstad is a writer and finance consultant for MSN Money, a personal finance software product. She is also a member of the Washington Society of Certified Public Accountants and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. Her website is http://helpicantpaymy bills.net. Sally Herigstad lives in Kent, Wash., with her husband Gary. They have two grown children, Valia and Grant.

To Her Credit answers a question about a debt or credit issue from a CreditCards.com reader each week.
Send your question to Sally.

Published: May 2, 2008



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