Tackling debt: Advice from Onalaska, La Crosse experts to achieve financial peace

Consumer debt continues to climb, but people can take steps to eliminate debt

LA CROSSE (WKBT) — Americans keep racking up more and more debt. More than half say they cannot afford a surprise expense.

Life costs more. Gas burns holes in our pockets, and our grocery receipt makes us cringe. However, most of the financial wounds many Americans face are self-inflicted, said Bruce Zmolek, president of Firefighters Credit Union in Onalaska.

“Too many people aren’t prepared,” Zmolek said.

The problem often surrounds credit.

“Spending money you don’t have,” Zmolek said.

Credit cards are useful, but only if you pay them off every month. However, consumer debt data indicates people don’t do that. A new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York shows credit card balances sit $71 billion higher than the first quarter of 2021.

“When they tell me they’ve got 15, 20, $30,000 in credit card debt, I say, ‘What do you have to show for it?’ One hundred percent of the time, they look me in the eye and go, ‘Nothing,’” Zmolek said.

Most people fail to budget, he said.

“Every dollar has to have a job,” he said.

Data shows many younger Americans do not live financially independently.

A report from savings.com finds half of parents gave some kind of financial help to their adult children. The survey revealed 62 percent of these young adults don’t contribute to household expenses at all.

More than half of Americans lack the savings to cover a surprise $1,000 expense, according to a new survey from Bankrate. Student debt is another issue. The average student loan debt, currently $37,693 according to educationdata.org.

Terry Micks, loan programs coordinator at UW-La Crosse, has some advice: “Only borrow what you need.”

Money sits out there just waiting for people to apply for it, Micks said.

“There are so many scholarships out there,” Micks said.

UW-La Crosse offers a program called “It Make$ Cents!” to teach financial literacy to students.

“You’re gonna be dealing with money all your life,” Micks said.

Other simple financial habits to cultivate include paying more than the minimum payments on debt, budgeting, spending only what you make, saving, creating an emergency fund for up to six months’ worth of income/expenses  and using cash if possible.

“It’s okay to have the things you want if you have the money to pay for them,” Zmolek said.

Zmolek recommends sitting down with somebody like a friend or a relative — someone who’s not trying to sell something — who can give sound advice to stay on top of finances.

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