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Editor's Letter

What You Can Do to Solve the Nation's Debt Problem

5 ways to trim the federal deficit

Dismayed by Washington? Disappointed? Disgusted? Take your pick. The politicians have earned your scorn honestly. They've been all but paralyzed trying to deal with a $14.3 trillion national debt. Here's another option: a do-it-yourself kit bag of small steps you can take that will actually have an impact on the federal deficit.

See also: Obama's plan spares Social Security.

  • It won't be easy, given the enormity of the problem. The cumulative deficits will total around $10 trillion over the next decade. Congress directed a "super-committee" to find budget cuts of $1.2 trillion. As a point of reference, at $1 a second, it would take you almost 32,000 years to spend $1 trillion. So this is an enormous task.

  • Still, these are five steps you can take that would trim the deficit.

1. Cut 150 calories a day from your diet. Skip the cookies. The cost of health care is at the heart of the nation's fiscal problems. Our fiscal future depends on getting our health costs in line. Start by eating less. The national eating binge has consequences, starting with diabetes. Today, 28.5 million people are diabetic, and another 66 million are prediabetic. Their medical bill, now $174 billion a year, is projected to soar, according to a UnitedHealthcare study, costing the nation $3.4 trillion in the decade ending 2020. More than 60 percent of those costs will be paid by the federal government. Cutting calories cuts the risk of diabetes, which saves money.

2. Pay your debts. The fastest-growing item in the federal budget today is debt service — the interest we're paying on the $14 trillion national debt. It's rising from $186.9 billion in 2009 to $320.9 billion in 2013. Household debt has exploded, too, as we turned to credit cards to finance daily living, especially in an era when wages barely kept pace with inflation. Household borrowing has doubled since 2000 to $11.4 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve — an estimated $36,514 for every man, woman and child. The situation is acute for older Americans: The average U.S. family with a head of household age 60 to 70 has saved 25 percent of what it will need for retirement. Any new borrowing puts pressure on interest rates tomorrow. Conversely, trimming eases pressure on interest rates, which will reduce the amount of interest to be paid on the national debt.

3. Walk a mile a day. Or bike or swim or try any aerobic exercise that burns calories and strengthens the heart. Heart disease is the nation's leading killer. More than 40 percent of U.S. adults can expect to suffer from cardiovascular disease by 2030, with medical bills exceeding $1 trillion. More than half of those costs will be borne by Medicare. Extra exercise cuts the nation's medical bill.

4. Plan to work an extra year or two. This has multiple benefits. First, you'll contribute to the Social Security trust fund. Second, you'll add to your retirement fund. Third, a delay in cashing out will bolster the Social Security fund and increase your benefit.

5. Give Uncle Sam a gift. Others do. Taxpayers' gifts to the U.S. Treasury so far this year total $2,429,800.03.

Here's the point. Everyone has a stake in this historic fiscal challenge, and the longer we ignore it, the greater the cataclysm awaiting us. This is not just a Washington problem. It requires a combination of common sense and forceful action. Citizens can lead the way.

Also of interest: How you would cut the federal deficit. >>

Jim Toedtman is editor and vice president of AARP Bulletin.

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