In the more than 15 years of experience working in the debt industry, I’ve heard every story under the sun about how someone fell into debt. While there are times when people fall into debt for unavoidable reasons, I do notice a lot of people fall into debt for the same reasons. So in order to help keep you from making the same mistakes, here are the five biggest reasons I’ve seen people fall into debt.
1. Treating Credit Like Cash
Many of my clients have a tendency to treat their credit cards like an extension of their bank account. They max out their credit cards without taking into consideration the impact it’s having on their credit scores and how much more they’re paying over time in interest. This sort of behavior could really put you in a jam!
My solution? Stick to a debit card or keep yourself honest with only one or two low-limit credit cards. I also advise them to assign specific “jobs” to their cards, to keep them from overspending. Budgeting for “fun” purchases that you pay for with cash or a debit card could help keep you from overspending, while reserving your credit cards to handle recurring bills and online subscriptions — in amounts you can pay in full each month — is a better way to manage them. Keep in mind, carrying a balance that is more than 30 percent of your credit limit can have a negative impact on your credit scores. If you want to see how your debt levels are influencing your credit, you can get two free credit scores on Credit.com, plus an overview of what factors are affecting them.
2. Trying to Keep Up With the Joneses
True wealth is having a high net worth, not having a lot of stuff. A lot of my clients fall into debt because they believe in order to seem financially successful they need to SPEND their money on elaborate, luxurious and unnecessary things to simply keep up with neighbors. Trying to keep up with appearances and maintain a lifestyle you can’t afford is one of the quickest ways to fall into debt.
So what do I tell my clients? I explain to them that the neighbors they’re so concerned with, the ones with the fancy cars, are most likely in debt themselves! You can never know who owes money and how much, so it’s important to not judge by appearances. Spend only on things you can afford, put money away and you’ll be the one people want to keep up with.
3. Not Separating Needs From Wants
You want to have your priorities straight, especially when it comes to money. Not having a clear understanding of the things you need as opposed to the things you want could result in a lot of unnecessary spending and, in turn, debt.
Whenever my clients seem to be having difficulty understanding the difference between needs and wants, I tell them to write everything down. Making a simple list of needs, wants and even a category for both can help you identify and prioritize your spending goals. Keeping a tight list can help you attend to the things you need while also setting aside enough money to get the things you want.
4. Financial Illiteracy
Some people just don’t know how money works, how to budget or how to manage personal finances. Whether it’s because they were never properly educated or simply hated economics in school, financial illiteracy can lead anyone into debt.
That said, it’s never too late to learn! I always suggest that my clients take some time and educate themselves on basic personal finance. With the vast number of great books, blogs, podcasts and websites out there dedicated to personal finance and financial literacy, you’re sure to find a way to learn about money and, subsequently, keep yourself out of debt.
5. Hoping for the Best, But Not Preparing for the Worst
Without an emergency fund, you’re leaving yourself exposed to all sorts of financial woes. I understand that you cannot prepare for every situation, but having a safety net of funds in the bank can help you sleep better and keep you from getting into debt when the unexpected happens.
A lot of my clients find themselves falling into debt when disaster strikes because they simply didn’t save enough. I suggest they build a budget so they can see how to save to their maximum potential. Once they’ve set aside enough money, they start to understand the benefits of keeping money in the bank. I constantly have clients telling me that budgeting has given them financial peace of mind.
When it comes to staying out of debt, it really boils down to paying attention. More often than not, people find themselves up to their ears in debt because they ignore their statements, are overspending because they don’t budget, and getting caught with unmanageable expenses because they didn’t save. Take the time to sit down and review your finances. Learn how much you need to save for emergencies and long-term goals and make it a habit of continually setting money aside. The more frequently you do a checkup on your finances, and the more frequently you hold yourself accountable, the less chance you’ll have of falling into debt.
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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.