So what can you do if you're already mired in debt? First, check your credit reports, which are free yearly through the federally mandated website AnnualCreditReport.com, make sure you understand what you owe, and correct any errors. You can also consider a free service, like the Credit Report Card offered by my company Credit.com, which updates your credit scores on a monthly basis.
Second, start paying down that debt, no matter the daily sacrifices you have to make. There are various schools of thought when it comes to reducing debt and each one has its positives and negatives – but pick one and get started.
Finally, make a plan for when you are finally debt-free: identify the spending behaviors behind your debt and make sure you don't fall back into bad habits. It's no use getting out of debt to improve your credit score, only to turn around and scuttle all your hard work because you miss that daily latte.
Though talking about your debt in polite company isn't as likely to raise as many eyebrows as some other four-letter words we all know, it is the word most likely to have lasting consequences for your life. So make sure you use debt as wisely and judiciously as you would an f-bomb – sparingly, and only when it's really important for what you want to accomplish.
Adam Levin is chairman and cofounder of Credit.com and Identity Theft 911. His experience as former director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs gives him unique insight into consumer privacy, legislation and financial advocacy. He is a nationally recognized expert on identity theft and credit.