Like many Americans, Leah West, 40, is struggling to shed debt and manage an array of financial obligations. After her divorce seven years ago, Leah, a mother of three, enrolled in college and earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She moved up the ladder in health care administration, and earns about $80,000.
But she’s now saddled with more than $82,000 in debt, mostly student loans; and her home is worth less than what she paid it. Leah also wants to set aside money for college tuition for her kids, and build a retirement fund.
Since September, I’ve been coaching Leah in her quest to improve her finances. Her story offers practical lessons in how to attack multiple financial goals and maintain momentum. Here are just a few:
1) Focus on the positive
Before you confront a mountain of bills, remind yourself what’s working for you. Leah had earned a master’s degree — an accomplishment just 6 percent of Americans can claim. She enjoys her job, has a solid income and excellent insurance coverage.
She is in good health, has three wonderful kids, and can cover all her bills without falling further into the red. Relationships, education, career experience, health and spirituality are all components of well-being; savoring the positive can provide the momentum to tackle the bad stuff.
2) Set one to three manageable goals
Don’t overwhelm yourself with a list of ten things to fix immediately. Leah’s priorities were eliminating her credit card debt; creating a plan to pay off her student loans (which were in forbearance); and building up an emergency fund of $10,000. Once we had a strategy up and running, we could move on to other goals, such as college savings and retirement.
3) Get a handle on the real numbers
Although Leah was making double the minimum payment on her credit cards, she felt she wasn’t making progress. I used an online debt calculator to show her the truth: By paying twice the minimum, she would banish the debt in 15 months and pay $302 in interest. If she made only the minimum payments, it would take more than six years, and she’d pay $1,328 in interest.
Leah also got the hard numbers on her student loan debt to make sure the loans weren’t snowballing at absurdly high interest rates, and disrupting the rest of her financial plan. Fortunately, the rates were quite low, so we left that alone for the moment to focus on the debt paydown. (That would free up the cash necessary to eventually tackle the student debt.)
Finally, we discussed Leah’s retirement plan. She had enrolled in a 403(b) plan when she started her job at a health center and contributed steadily for four years. But about 18 months ago, her employer eliminated matching funds because of budget cuts, so Leah stopped contributing. The health center is expected to reinstate the match next year, and Leah plans to jump back in then.
It’s a smart move from a numbers perspective: It’s better to pay down credit card debt at 20 percent interest than to contribute to a plan with no match, because she’s unlikely to earn a 20 percent return on her retirement savings.
4) Rank your rates, then cut them down
Leah listed her credit cards on a single page from highest to lowest interest rate, along with the amount due and the company contact information. She called each lender and asked for a rate reduction, using this script: “I have been a cardholder since ____. In the past few months, several credit card companies have offered me lower rates than my current rate with you.
I value our relationship, but would like you to match the other offers that I have received and reduce my interest rate by 10 percent. Are you authorized to adjust my interest rate?” (If they say no, ask politely to speak to someone who can and repeat the request.)
Although it took several hours of phone hassles, Leah cut her interest rate by 13.5 percentage points across three cards. Savings: About $275.