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Don't Spend What You Don't Have

Going shopping? Take a buddy, a budget and a stopwatch with you to avoid overspending.

We'd all like to think that we'll ease into and through retirement free of debt. Unfortunately, that's hardly the case. Americans 65 and older who carry a balance on their credit cards owe $10,235, on average, according to the public policy group Demos. That's up 26 percent from 2005 levels.

See also: Use cash to spend less.

It's not hard to see why older folks are racking up more and more debt. Health care and energy costs are on the rise, and homes and investments have lost significant value. Family members in need of financial help have added to the burden.

For better or (mostly) worse, credit cards have become a way to make ends meet each month. If you're struggling with credit card debt, try these three strategies for getting back on your feet financially:

1. Write everything down

It can be tough to finally admit exactly how much debt you're carrying. I know. I once found myself $100,000 in debt. But if you're going to dig yourself out of debt like I did, you have to know precisely how much damage has been done.

The fastest way to get a snapshot of all of your credit card bills is to pull your credit reports. Visit to get free copies from the three main credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. Avoid other credit report websites — they often charge hidden fees.

Next: Get real with your budget. >>

2. Make a realistic budget

While it's not necessary to live like a pauper, it is smart to get a handle on your cash flow. That means creating a realistic home budget. Take a hard look at how much income you've got coming in the door each month, and what's going out.

Small changes in your spending habits can go a long way. Skipping Starbucks in favor of home-brewed coffee can save up to $50 a month. Switching to basic cable from a premium package can cut your monthly bill by up to $40.

3. Get help

The financial impact of the Great Recession has been felt far and wide, but credit counselors say older Americans have been particularly hard hit by the economic downturn. Nest eggs have shrunk and jobs for older workers remain scarce. So if you're grappling with debt, you're not alone — and you shouldn't be embarrassed to ask for help.

Find a free or low-cost credit counselor who can explain your options for dealing with debt. Two reputable organizations are the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and the National Foundation for Debt Management. Beware credit repair scams. Legitimate credit counselors can't and won't promise to eliminate your debt instantly in exchange for a high upfront fee.

Lynnette Khalfani-Cox is the author of Perfect Credit: 7 Steps to a Great Credit Rating. You can friend her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @TheMoneyCoach.

You may also like: Find $1000 to pay off debt. >>