April was financial literacy month. Did you learn anything? The anecdotal evidence doesn’t look good. Americans are falling deeper into debt, and they are increasingly waiting too long to seek help, says David Jones, president of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies.
He ought to know. His group, based in Fairfax, Va., represents nonprofit credit counseling companies that provide free and low-cost consumer credit counseling, debt management and financial education services nationwide, and he says it was inundated with calls for help.
People calling in recent months typically are so deeply in debt that only a fraction can budget their way out of bankruptcy. A year ago, he estimates, less than 10 percent of credit counseling clients ended up in bankruptcy. Today, he says, it’s closer to 30 percent.
Statistics provided by the court system underscore the point. Nationally, bankruptcy filings have more than doubled since 2006 and are heading back into the record territory not seen since 2005, when the nation’s bankruptcy laws were overhauled.
“Even though the economy is getting better, people go into denial about their own situation,” Jones says. “We end up able to help fewer people because they’re coming to us in worse shape.”
How close are you to the financial edge? To help you find out, here’s a 10-question multiple-choice quiz, developed with some guidance from the National Foundation for Consumer Credit and Clearpoint Financial Solutions.
1. The amount I have socked away in savings to handle emergencies could pay all of my living expenses for up to: A) three months; B) six months; C) eight months or more; D) about an hour and a half, if I cut back.
2. My spouse and I fight about money: A) frequently; B) sometimes; C) never; D) through court-appointed lawyers.
3. Payments on my consumer debts—auto loans, student loans, credit cards and home equity lines of credit—amount to less than: A) about 20 percent of take-home pay; B) 15 percent of take-home pay; C) 10 percent or less of take-home pay; D) considerably more than 20 percent of my monthly paychecks.
4. When it comes to saving for retirement, I’m socking away: A) 6 percent or a little less of income to get the company match; B) 10 percent of my income; C) the maximum allowed by the company plan; D) whatever’s in the couch cushions. Seriously, who can afford to save for retirement?
5. My housing costs, including property tax (when applicable) and insurance, amount to less than: A) 30 percent of my take-home pay; B) 25 percent of take-home pay; C) 20 percent or less of take-home pay; D) more than 30 percent of take-home pay.
6. I make more than the minimum required payments on my credit cards: A) sometimes; B) most of the time; C) always—I pay off the full balance each month; D) never. If they demand $29.37, that’s what I’m paying and not a penny more.
7. I spend less than I make: A) unless there’s a sale; B) except in cases when I’m investing in something long term, like education or a car that gets me to work; C) always; D) when I manage to work enough overtime.
8. My finances: A) are an occasional source of concern; B) are largely in control; C) are never a cause of worry; D) give me cold sweats.
9. I have enough insurance to cover medical costs: A) as long as they’re not catastrophic; B) for both me and my family; C) and I have money set aside to cover co-payments and deductibles; D) only if I never get sick.
10. I know my net worth and: A) though it’s not what I want it to be, I’m working on it; B) it’s good and growing; C) I’m the typical millionaire next door; D) it tells me I’m insolvent.
Scoring: Give yourself five points for each A answer; two points for each B; one point for each C; and 10 points for each D answer. Total your points and assess your score.
76-100: Danger zone: You are in the economic red zone. Get yourself to a credit counselor pronto. If you need help finding one, go to nfcc.org or aiccca.org. Both are national credit counseling associations that allow you to find a counselor in your neighborhood by hitting the “find a counselor” buttons on their home pages.
51-75: Teetering: You may be making your payments now, but you’re on the razor’s edge of trouble. It’s time to get serious about budgeting and saving. If you can’t do it alone, get help.
26-50: Healthy and happy: You’ve got adequate savings and good habits. Keep it up and you’ll be comfortably rich in no time, if you’re not already.
0-25: Go ahead and gloat: You are in an enviable spot, likely to be able to handle any economic emergency that comes your way. But you already knew that, didn’t you?
Kathy Kristof’s column is syndicated by Tribune Media Services. She welcomes comments and suggestions but regrets that she cannot respond to each one. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.