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How to: Understand personal debt

If you are overwhelmed by debt, one of the first steps you’ll need to take to organize your finances is to determine exactly how much debt you owe, and to whom. There are several ways that you can do this, from low-tech to high-tech.

The most low-tech, and slowest method, is to take each of your individual bills and find the balance due as well as the lender’s name. You should keep track of this information going forward, using a spreadsheet, an online service, or a personal finance computer program. While some programs can pull balance information directly from your lenders, if you are using a spreadsheet or notebook, you’ll need to do it manually. Consider signing up for online access for each of your lenders so that you can check your balance and payment information easily and frequently.

If you aren’t entirely sure that you are receiving all of your bills (especially if you’ve moved around quite a bit or have recently divorced), then it’s a good idea to pull free annual copies of each of your credit reports to find out what your lenders are reporting to each of the credit agencies. To get a full picture of how much debt you owe, you really should get reports from each of the three major credit reporting agencies, Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian, because different information may be contained on each of the reports.

Keep in mind that the information contained on the credit reports may not be the absolute latest, due to the lag in reporting. Therefore, once you obtain the credit reports, you should also contact each lender to find out what the current amount owed is. Then, sign up for online access to each of these accounts to accurately track payment amounts and balances.

Organization is essential to keeping your financial obligations up to date, so taking some time upfront to set up access and find out balance and payment amounts will definitely save you some time later, and help prevent late fees.