Nov. 1, 2010 — -- Eleven trillion dollars of debt: that's the current amount of consumer debt in this country. Even though this staggering number has decreased since 2008, the average American is $16,000 in debt, not including a mortgage.
Massachusetts single mother Leah West is trying to get rid of the burden that many of us are keeping a secret. She started on a debt diet to dig out from under more than $80,000 of debt.
West treasures time with her children.
On Fridays, she meets her three children – Matthew, Hannah and Katie – at the bus stop. It's only day she does not commute three hours round-trip to work.
Leah, 40, lives on Cape Cod, a dream location, but quite a distance from her job as an administrative director at a health center.
Web Extra: CLICK HERE to visit the National Foundation for Credit Counseling website.
Formerly a stay-at-home mom, Leah went back to school to earn her bachelor's and master's degrees after her divorce, and in turn picked up $80,000 of student loan debt.
"When you have $80,000 of student loans weighing on your shoulder, you know, you want to get serious and get rid of it," West told ABC News.
Add on another nearly $3,000 of credit card debt, and the fact that she owes more on her house that it's worth, Leah says she needs help.
She did not want to revisit the period right after her divorce when she was in even deeper financial pain.
"That time was totally despair … There were definitely nights that I didn't know how I was going to put food on the table," she said.
Enter Laura Rowley, money and happiness columnist with Yahoo Finance.
"I think for a lot of people, debt is the monster in the closet," Rowley said.
Laura's first tip for anyone facing a mountain of debt is not to start with the numbers, but to start with what you value in life.
"If I value my children, most of all, like Leah does. How am I going to pay for their education? How am I going to help them get the education they need to get the job that's going to make them happy," she said.For Leah, this mindset toward spending was revolutionary.
"Once you do that, it's like a puzzle. Everything goes in to place, and you start being much more careful about what you spend your money on … that changed everything for me," West said.
Expert: Scrutinize Every Dollar Your Spend
It also makes it easier to tackle the next task: scrutinize every dollar you spend.
"There's a corner store down the street and I realized I was spending about $400 a month there on you know, you go to your friend's house and you pick up a bottle of wine…or your kids say I don't want that for dinner, and you say alright I'll go down to the store and get something else," West added.
When West added up the damage, she couldn't believe it. She spent $30,000 over seven years – at the corner store. That's in addition to her spending at the grocery store.
"I could have re-done my kitchen or a year of college for my kids, or had that in my retirement account…so you start looking at everything that way," she said.
Now it's time to get down and dirty with the numbers and put a plan in place.
"Leah had a lot of different goals, but it's really important not to overwhelm yourself with five or 10 goals. Start with one to three goals that are very manageable," Rowley said.
Leah's first three goals are: to pay off her credit card debt, create an emergency fund of $10,000 and start paying off her student loans.
So how to begin? Laura says Leah's secret weapon is her soon-to-be finished $500-a-month car payment.
"That $500 is going to go to your credit cards until they're paid off," Rowley said.
And once the credit cards are done, that extra cash will go to the emergency fund, and so on.
"It's really important, as you're paying down debt, not to allow that money to go into your budget and ratchet up your lifestyle," Rowley said.
Then you want to look for ways to earn extra money.
Leah turned her mess into her mission by writing a blog called 'Mom vs. Debt" on womansday.com. She helps others by sharing her story while making extra money.
Those lessons don't go unnoticed by her children.
"I think it's good for her. I think that it's teaching her something," 12-year-old Hannah said.
"The most important thing is to save up your money," added Matthew, 9.
"I think it's good 'cause I know that she's always wanted to do that," said Katie, 13.
Be Thankful for What You Have
Laura's final tip for Leah – keep a gratitude journal to stay motivated.
"My house is tiny, but it's mine. And it's warm and comfortable. And my kids are happy here, and I have a great job that I love. I have the beach up the street from my house, and I have my dog... I have everything I need."
And that makes Leah realize that she is already rich.
In less than a year, Laura expects Leah to be free of credit card debt, have an emergency stash of $10,000, begin paying off her student loans and start contributing to her retirement plan.
Like any good diet, it's a lifestyle change. And Leah knows that. She's on this path not just till she gets out of debt, but for the rest of her life.
There are other ways that consumers can get out of debt.
If you are in debt, write down your debts in the order of highest to lowest interest rates and pay them off in that order. That will save you the most in interest payments.
Call your credit card companies and request a lower rate. Here is Laura Rowley sample script that you can use:
"Hello, my name is _______________. 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 my relationship with you, but I 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. Then repeat the offer; if they say no to 10 percent, ask if they can give you any kind of rate reduction at all, even 1 or 2 percent.
As you pay down your debts, your credit score will improve, making it possible for you to receive credit card offers with zero percent interest rates for a certain amount of time.
Roll over your balances to those cards and put every nickel you can towards those bills. Just watch out for high transfer fees. Do the math to make sure it's a deal for you.
If you feel you can't do this on your own and you don't have someone like Laura Rowley to guide you, there is other help available.
Get Legitimate Credit Counseling
The key is to get credit counseling. Scratch that: legitimate credit counseling.
There are bad credit counselors out there who will take your money and leave you in worse shape. By contrast, the nonprofit consumer credit counseling service has been helping people for decades.
Click HERE to visit the National Foundation for Credit Counseling website.