Tracking your debt is an important aspect of managing your finances, but facing what you owe can be intimidating. Ignoring your debts may save you from the stress—temporarily at least—but it's not a smart move.
Debt, especially high-interest-rate debt, can spiral out of control if you ignore it, cautioned Madison Block of the American Consumer Credit Counseling.
You may be unsure about where to find details of all your debts, but the information isn't too hard to track down. We'll show you how to pull together a list of your accounts, and walk you through some tips on organizing the information so it's easier to take action on.
How To Find All Your Debt
Since most of your credit card issuers and lenders will have reported your account details to at least one of three major credit bureaus, your credit reports are a great place to start. You can order your reports directly from any of the credit bureaus or grab a free copy at AnnualCreditReport.com.
Through April 20, 2022, you can get a free report each week from AnnualCreditReport.com. Ordinarily, you can access your reports for free once per year.
Once you have your credit reports, you'll see a list of both open and closed accounts. These will include credit cards, auto and personal loans, and collections (delinquent accounts that have been sent to a third-party for further collection). Your credit report will include the last reported balance, but because credit reports aren't updated in real time, your credit report may not reflect the latest balance on all of your accounts.
Your debt list should also include debts not picked up on your credit report. These could be installment payments, fines or fees, medical debts, and loans from family and friends, and anything else that may not be reported to the credit bureaus. For instance, you can include in your debt list a cell phone on an installment plan, rent-to-own arrangements, or buy now, pay later balances. Make sure you also list past-due child support, rent, or back taxes you owe so your debt plan addresses these, too.
Your debt list doesn’t have to include regular monthly bills such as electric service, unless you have a past-due balance.
You can verify your debt balances and the amounts by accessing your online credit card and loan account, checking billing statements or loan agreements, or reviewing court orders.
Organizing Your Debt Accounts
Having a list of your debts gives you a better idea of where you stand, but a list of debts can be hard to act on. By prioritizing the figures on your list, you have a roadmap to guide your debt journey. For example, if you're following the debt snowball method, you'd organize your list of debts from the lowest balance to the highest. Or you might decide to pay off bad debts first—those with high interest rates— then focus on getting rid of your less-expensive debt.
If you're savvy with spreadsheet software such as Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets, you can use it to organize your debt accounts and create custom calculations to better understand your debt picture.
We’ve created a Google Sheets spreadsheet (The Balance’s Credit Card Debt Worksheet) to help you collect your credit card details and do the math on retiring credit card debt. In addition to summing up debt totals for any cards added to the list, the spreadsheet calculates credit utilization ratio, an important factor in credit scoring. With just a few edits, you could use this tool to track all of your debt, too.
Using a computer or smartphone debt reduction app can help you organize your debt accounts while saving time on data entry and doing calculations. There are both free and paid options with features including automatic debt plan creation, real-time balance updates, and calendar syncing.
Tracking Debt and Managing Your Budget
Tracking your debt in the same place as your budget—for example in a budgeting app or a spreadsheet—allows you to make more informed decisions about reducing your debt. You can make adjustments to your budget and see how it may affect your ability to reduce your debt.
If you're using a spreadsheet to keep up with your debt, you can create formulas to give you additional insight into your accounts. For example, you can determine how much of your monthly income is going toward debt payments with a formula to calculate your debt-to-income ratio—your total monthly debt payments divided by your total monthly income. Or you can estimate the total interest you'll pay on a loan with the CUMIPMT calculation in a Google Sheets spreadsheet, using the interest rate, number of payments, balance, and timing of the first and last payments.
No matter which method you choose, keeping up with your monthly payments, current balance, and any interest rate changes is key to staying on track.
The Bottom Line
Life can change while you're paying off debt, and that may mean reorganizing your accounts when your income changes, your family grows, or even as you pay off debts. Review your plan periodically—once a year, for example—to check your progress and make adjustments if you need to.
Now that you have all your debts in one place, the next step will be choosing a debt reduction strategy. Having your debt organized makes it easier to compare strategies and choose one that will be most effective for your finances and your debt payoff goal.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
How do you find out which collection agencies you actually owe and need to repay?
Your credit report is a good place to start to find a list of collection agencies you owe. If the account has been updated recently, that's a good indication your credit report shows the correct agency. If you have bills you know have gone unpaid but they aren't listed on your credit report, contact the original creditor to find out to whom they've assigned or sold the account.
How much debt can you get into before you need to file bankruptcy?
There's not a specific amount of debt you need to have to file bankruptcy. The amount of debt you can handle depends on your income, expenses, and the type of debt. Depending on these factors, you may have to file Chapter 13 bankruptcy to repay your debts or you may be eligible to file for discharge under Chapter 7 bankruptcy.