Q I'm 23, and when I was young I didn't handle my credit cards well. I've stopped using the cards or shopping unless I need something. But I have a lot of debt. I don't even want to look at it because it makes me sick when I think about paying bills over again for something I bought a long time ago. Any advice?
A You are on your way to a solution because you realize that when you don't wipe out bills each month, you pay over and over again for the sweater you bought in 2005.
The problem is that this realization now troubles you so much. You have to put yourself in a position to take action instead of staying paralyzed by regret.
Brad Klontz, a psychologist who helps people with money problems, said to let yourself off the hook for the mistakes you've made. Think of them as "legitimate mistakes," induced perhaps by a lack of information about how debts add up or incorrect attitudes about money you absorbed as a child.
You need to forgive yourself to get past "regret and shame" and prepare yourself to take action, Klontz says in his coming book, "Mind Over Money: Overcoming the Money Disorders That Threaten Our Financial Health."
"Guilt is good for us because it inspires us to repair things," but it can also interfere, he said in an interview. "We can go into denial or avoidance and get stuck in a shame cycle."
When they look at credit card bills, Klontz said, people in shame might conclude: "There's something wrong with me." And "when people decide they are broken, they think: `Why try to fix anything?' They might give up."
Yet, Klontz said, "You aren't broken. There was a good reason for your behavior," although founded on incorrect assumptions.
Once you realize this, you can free yourself from being disgusted, Klontz said. "If we are disgusted with ourselves, we might decide to ignore the debt because that makes us feel better." But there is a cost for pretending: Financial problems weigh on other parts of people's lives and "shame keeps us stuck."
Klontz suggests paying off your smallest credit card balance first so you feel accomplishment, and think about your future rather than letting yourself feel deprived.
"Envision where you want to be in the future -- how you will feel with the burden of debt lifted from you, and the house you might live in 20 years from now," Klontz said.
Although emotions might be a barrier, it's important to know what you can afford to spend and to reserve money to pay down debt.
Too often people struggle because they are devoting too much money to expenses that are not necessary or don't make them happy, said financial planner Sue Stevens.
They might overspend on housing and cars and use credit cards on entertainment because their paycheck won't stretch that far. Instead, she suggests going through a checkbook and credit card bills for a few months and ask: "What am I spending that does not give me pleasure?"
In her list of "101 Ways to Chop Down Costs" at financial-happiness.com/public/240.cfm?sd=50, Stevens shows ways to accumulate more spending money without depriving yourself.
In her coming book, "Put Your Money Where Your Heart Is," she suggests devoting 55 percent of pay, after taxes, to necessities such as rent, utilities, food and health insurance; then 15 percent on what she calls security -- car payments, telephones and savings.
To get rid of debt, pay more than the minimum each month. In that 15 percent, Stevens suggests using at least 5 percent a month to pay down debt and to increase it slightly each month to rid yourself of debt. Put another 5 percent each month into an emergency fund so you don't need to use credit cards on unforeseen expenses. The rest of the pay can be for discretionary spending.
Go to mint.com for budgeting help. To see how to make your debt disappear, go to dinkytown.com/java/PayoffCC.html.