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Romans: You think you can afford it but ...

Christine Romans says there are ways people can cut costs without sacrificing their standard of living.
Christine Romans says there are ways people can cut costs without sacrificing their standard of living.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • CNN's Christine Romans covers various financial scenarios and their relation to your happiness
  • Romans: Taking 10 extra minutes on any decision involving money can help you save
  • Romans: Figure out what it'll take to become free of credit card debt in three years
  • The key is to know what you can live without, she says in her new book
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Editor's note: Christine Romans is host of CNN's "Your $$$$$" and author of the new book "Smart Is the New Rich" (Wiley).

(CNN) -- Christine Romans' new book, "Smart Is the New Rich," aims to help everyday people make smart decisions that will lead to happiness and security.

Romans, who anchors CNN's "Your $$$$$," spoke to CNN.com about ways to pay down debt and still save and also offered other tips for people to manage their money and lives.

CNN: In the book, you focus on getting readers to live within their means. What are some things that some of us may think are within our means that really aren't?

Christine Romans: The big one is the house. In the bubble, people lived beyond their means in their house, and they convinced themselves -- because they thought the housing prices were going to go up -- that it was OK, but we know that it's not OK. People really have to evaluate their house expenses. If you have a job and you are able to downsize, it actually is a pretty good time to downsize, especially the older you are and the closer you are to retirement.

The second one would be car expenses. Interest rates on car loans are really cheap right now. We got to this point where people had homes with more bedrooms than people to sleep in, more garages than cars to put in them and more cars than people to drive them. It just takes a fundamental reassessment: Do you need this?

I think it was Leonardo da Vinci who said, "The ultimate luxury is simplicity." Americans forgot that. They thought the ultimate luxury was a house that was too big full of cheap stuff that they really couldn't afford.

People are paying too much for a lot of things. I think they're paying too much for their cell phone plans, for their travel -- everything is negotiable right now. There's no reason to pay the listed price to rent a car or a hotel room.

My big piece of advice for people is if you're going on vacation, consider a "staycation" first. You'll save a lot of money that way. The second thing to do is don't use the 1-800 number to make a hotel reservation. Call a manager of the actual property of where you're going to. Taking 10 extra minutes on any decision involving your money can save you money. It still feels like a recession. People want your business, so ask for discounts, ask for the best deals.

CNN: What are some tips for paying down credit card debt -- whether it's $2,000, $5,000, $10,000 or more?

Romans: The first thing to do is to sit down and figure out how much it will cost to become free of credit card debt in three years. Now you can see it right on your bill. It'll say in the top right what you have to pay every month to be debt-free in three years.

Then once you've got that number -- what you have to pay each and every month -- you've got to figure out how to get to that number. That could mean a total freeze on extraneous spending. If you have a good score, you can always try to negotiate a lower interest rate with your credit card company.

You'll also want to make a list of all of your expenses and really scrutinize that list. I guarantee that there are half a dozen things on there that you can get rid of and not even feel any different in your life. You can cut some of these costs out and not sacrifice your standard of living. I think that's what the whole point of the book is -- how to be smart about your money without sacrificing your life and the life that you lead.

For some people, it's going to be the mortgage, finding ways to cut housing expenses. For others, it's going to mean vacations or the way they commute. For other people, it's going to mean getting rid of a car. Either way, it's important to make a big list -- what's coming in, what's going out -- and you can take some stuff off that list.

Read an excerpt from "Smart Is the New Rich"

CNN: One of your mottoes in the books is: Always save first. Is there a certain percentage of income we should all be putting away regardless of salary?

Romans: It's hard to give a "one size fits all" approach. When I talk to financial planners, they all have different numbers. They say you start with 3 percent -- even you have no money, you're broke, you got slammed by the economy and have to start over.

Then edge up to 5 percent. The ultimate goal is 10 percent. That depends on how much money you make, too, because other people want to be putting money away for their kids' college.

CNN: In the book and on CNN, you've said that getting your child to take out the garbage will help him or her become rich in the future. Can you explain?

Romans: Children who have a chore, a chore that they do consistently around the house to pitch in, have been shown to grow up -- according to their parents -- to have a better sense about money. This is according to a study by the Charles Schwab Foundation earlier this year. They found that kids who had expectations from the household for some reason -- and it's unclear why -- grew up to be better with money.

I think it has to do with responsibility and with the idea of following through and with the consistency of doing a chore around the house. The same kind of discipline that takes to take out the trash for Mom and Dad is the same kind of discipline it takes to make sure the checkbook is balanced and that you're not spending more than you earn.

CNN: Without giving too much of the book away, of course, can you give us a few of your more shocking Romans' numerals?

Romans: Forty-seven: the percentage of employers -- almost half -- that run a credit check on people who apply for a job. Seeing as a third of Americans don't even qualify for a mortgage right now because credit scores are so low, I don't know how I feel about employers possibly drawing conclusions about you.

Seven: the number of years a missed debt payment -- even one credit card late payment -- stays on your record for everyone to see, including an employer.

$22,375: median student debt.

Four hundred thirty-nine: the [percentage] the cost of attending college rose from 1982 to 2006.

Five: the amount of hours a prospective home buyer actually studies their mortgage documents. I know when I was studying my mortgage documents there were whole pages that may as well have been in Greek. There was one page that one of the attorneys couldn't even tell me what it meant.

Forty-six: the number of years it would take to pay off $10,000 in credit card debt at an 18 percent APR [annual percentage rate] if if you only make minimum payments and not make a single other purchase with that card.

CNN: What are your thoughts on renting a home vs. buying?

Romans: There's no question that for some people who've been battered, renting might be a great opportunity to repair your balance sheet and to start building up savings, because savings is king. And if you are in a situation where you can sell the house, or you've just been foreclosed on, you need to rent for a while and get yourself back on your feet.

Last year, we saw vacancies rise and rents actually drop in this country for the first time in a very long time. In the book, I profile a young, female attorney making six figures. Everyone told her she was crazy not to buy, but she realized she wasn't interested in things like gardening, didn't have a dog and just preferred to spend her money on travel, going to restaurants and things like that.

Renting is the right thing for people who are trying to build up savings. Renting is a safe bet right now.

CNN: What are your feelings on repayment of student loans? Is it really the so-called "good" kind of debt?

Romans: I think that student debt, for millions of Americans, is like this background noise in their life. I had some student debt, but it was not very much because my parents sent me to a state school, and they didn't want me to be saddled with a lot of debt. I paid it off right away, but at the time, financial planners and my boss at a financial network at the time told me I was crazy to get rid of that debt. But for my personality and for me, I didn't want that debt hanging over my head.

But there are others who say if the debt is at a low interest rate, you should pay your minimums, but you don't have to kill yourself paying that off. Pay it religiously on time, but you need to use your money to grow your life and grow your wealth in other ways, too. If you have high-interest rate credit card bills, you should pay as much of the credit card bill down as you can and pay only the minimums on the student debt.

In the book, I give some tips on how to keep educational costs down in the first place.

For example, one in five students enters college with some sort of AP [advanced placement] credits. A growing number of universities are offering three-year programs.

This is not for everyone, but if you can get out of school in three years -- especially if you're pre-med or something and you know you've got years of school beyond undergrad -- smart, aggressive kids who are good planners who know what they want to do can save themselves tens of thousands of dollars.