What You Can Do About That Brewing Debt Storm

By Odysseas Papadimitriou

NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- We'll go with the good news first: Charge-off rates (the frequency with which banks have to write long-overdue credit card debt off their books because it's uncollectible) are at record lows, and issuers are passing some of their savings along to consumers in the form of lucrative initial rewards bonuses and 0% financing deals.

The bad news? Well, we're racking up unsettling (and potentially unsustainable) amounts of new debt that could put the economic recovery in jeopardy if left uncorrected.

U.S. consumers added nearly $82 billion in credit card debt to their tabs in 2011 and last year, and we're on pace to tack on an additional $47 billion this year, according to a recent CardHub study. It seems that optimism about the economic recovery is fooling many folks into believing they can simply revert back to pre-recession spending habits. Unfortunately, pre-recession income levels were tied to the housing bubble, and we were having trouble making ends meet even before it burst.

The question is what we're going to do about our recidivist debt problem. The answer clearly begins with a readjustment of expectations as well as some good old fashioned budgeting. Only two in five Americans even keep a budget, according to a survey from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, and it's impossible to determine what luxuries are affordable without knowing how your spending stacks up against your income.

It doesn't end there, though. Everyone also needs to: 1) build an emergency fund and 2) pay off amounts already owed. That's in order of priority, believe it or not.

Part of the reason the recession was so severe is that too few people had the type of financial safety net needed to withstand prolonged periods of unemployment. We simply thought the good times would keep on rolling and didn't even consider what would happen should that expectation prove baseless. But we've seen where such thinking can get us. Now experts recommend that people have about a year's worth of take-home pay squirreled away, and beginning to make the monthly deposits necessary to build such a robust fund is actually more important than starting to pay off existing debt. After all, what good is being debt free when you're a pink slip or unexpected major expense away from ending up right back where you started?