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Jenna Boerger

Noticing troubling money signs early can help people avoid the financial cliff

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business Fargo, 58102
Fargo ND 101 5th Street North 58102

FARGO – Too often, by the time a client graces the door of the Village Financial Resource Center, it’s too late. They’re headed over a financial cliff, perhaps bankruptcy or foreclosure.

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When someone has financial troubles, it’s like a funnel, said Morgan Almer, a certified financial professional with The Village. Early on, there are lots of options. Their options narrow the longer they’re in that funnel.

“The earlier we can see folks, the better,” he said.

Almer and Jenna Boerger, also a certified financial professional for the Village, shared these warning signs that a financial cliff is on the horizon.

  • Your credit card is maxed out, you’re aggressively seeking more credit, or “If you’re living as though your credit is part of your income,” Boerger said, meaning it’s needed to pay for basic needs such as food.
  • When you’re making only the minimum payment, or using one card to pay off another. “Robbing Peter to pay Paul,” both said.
  • You’re using pawning or payday loans.
  • If you regularly pay late fees or overdrafts. “Some people think a normal part of having a checking account is paying overdraft fees, but it’s not normal,” Almer said.
  • Ignoring bills and not opening your mail.
  • Seeking a consolidation loan to pay off credit cards, but continuing to use the cards. “You can’t borrow your way out of debt,” Almer said.
  • Borrowing from friends or family on a consistent basis.
  • Borrowing against your 401(k). “Or, on the same token, you don’t have any retirement savings at all. That’s an issue, too,” Almer said.
  • You’re struggling with compulsive spending, gambling or substance abuse. “Those addictive habits can make things difficult really quickly,” Boerger said.
  • You’ve stopped making payments on a student loan.

Once your wages have been garnished for student loans, it’s hard to get them to stop, Almer and Boerger said. But there usually are options, such as deferment or income-based repayment plans, prior to delinquency.

Credit card companies are also more likely to work with customers, for example, reducing their interest rates, if payments are current.

“For whatever reason, we’re taught to fear our creditors. We shouldn’t,” Almer said.

People who see some financial warning signs should first face their unopened mail, Boerger said. They can pull their credit report from annualcreditreport.com to get a full picture of all debts. They may want to consider a debt management program, like the Village offers, or a self-administered payment strategy.

An adviser’s take

Even people who are on top of their money may be headed down a bad financial path.

Andrew Barker, a financial representative with Northwestern Mutual Financial Network in Fargo, said a lack of communication with a spouse can cause problems.

He’ll sometimes have one spouse come in for an initial meeting but not the other.

“I always like to have both spouses there,” he said. “If they’re not communicating or don’t understand each other’s visions or goals for the future, how do they work toward them together?”

He also warns against not having an emergency fund, which can mean raiding retirement accounts when an emergency – or an opportunity – arises. That can lead to significant taxes and penalties, as well as a loss of future earning power.

“If a person doesn’t have three to six months in personal savings, they shouldn’t be investing or saving for retirement,” Barker said.

But people shouldn’t wait to invest until their debt is completely paid off, he said, an increasingly common misconception.

Barker said it’s never too late to meet with a financial adviser. Maybe someone in their 50s who hasn’t planned won’t be able to retire at 65, but he can “give them something to shoot for that’s realistic,” he said.

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