This article is not intended for the folks who'd like to have less debt—or no debt—this article is for people who are in real trouble, those who may be thinking of bankruptcy, and for others who may not yet know they have too much debt but find that their credit card balances are consistently heading in the wrong direction.
If you can't make all of your payments each month without borrowing on your credit cards, you should be thinking seriously about how to get out of debt.
Your short-run goal is to get your debts sized to fit your income so that you can make all of your payments each month without borrowing more money. Most people find that they can do this if their total monthly debt obligation (including rent) is less than 40% of their gross income.
Follow these simple steps to get yourself back in control
Make a list of your debts.
Make a list of your assets. Be thorough.
Put an asterisk next to each of the assets with a debt attached (your house likely has a mortgage, your car likely has a loan attached).
If you have investments on your list of assets, consider using them to pay down the highest interest rate loans—probably credit cards. Talk to a tax advisor before using money from your IRA or 401k.
Sell your grown up toys. Think about boats, RVs, ATVs, motorcycles and other things you put gas in but don't drive to work each day. Often worth thousands of dollars, these sorts of assets can be sold to pay down consumer debts. These toys also cost money to insure and use, putting pressure on your budget. Sell the toys and rent some when you can afford it.
Have a yard sale or garage sale to get rid of all of the stuff you don't use that takes up space and that has value. Use the proceeds to reduce your debt.
If you have a car with a car loan, sell it (if you can) to pay off the loan and buy a clunker for cash. Better still, sell the car, pay off the loan and take public transportation. The monthly saving will be huge.
Finally, if you own a home with a mortgage smaller than the value of the home, you can consider selling your home and buying a smaller one with a smaller mortgage. Chances are, this will come with the benefit of new neighbors who drive less expensive cars and take less exotic vacations, relieving you of some of the pressure you may have been feeling to keep up with the Joneses.
If these steps don't get your debt under control, you may be a candidate for help from a consumer credit counseling service, or even bankruptcy. To avoid those steps, you may wish to approach your lenders on your own to ask for relief. Some may be willing to work with you to reduce payments, because if you declare bankruptcy they will probably get even less.
Once you have your debt down to a manageable size, set a goal to get completely out of debt by committing to paying off your smallest debts first and then your larger ones. It will take time, but one day you really will be debt-free.