Determine the cause of deathConduct a post-mortem exam of your budget. Was it slowly suffocated by cumulative debt pressure? Did it bleed out during three months of unemployment? Perhaps it was blunt-force trauma caused by the resetting of your adjustable rate mortgage.
The next step, says Kimball, is to "put your spending habits on house arrest." Try a cash-only or debit-only system. If you can't trust yourself with credit cards, leave the plastic at home when you run errands. Create a workable budget that includes a debt repayment plan.
Maybe the situation is more serious, e.g., your consumer debt is higher than your annual salary. Put up some of that crime scene "do not cross" tape, then get yourself some help. Trying to solve the problem on your own could compromise the investigation, according to certified financial planner (and lawyer) Rich Cohen.
"If you get into an area where you don't have the experience or expertise to handle the situation, you can contaminate the evidence," says Cohen, a New Jersey-based regional director for PNC Wealth Management.
This advice need not be pricey; for example, the NFCC offers counseling at low or no cost -- (866) 481-6322 for MSN Money readers. It's crucial to reach out. Lacking a clear understanding of your rights could lead to self-incrimination such as acknowledging zombie debt or signing up for spurious "debt relief" programs.
Wrapping the investigationFinancial CSI-ing isn't about punishment. It's about prevention. The point isn't just to figure out where you went into the hole, but to keep it between the ditches in the future.
Consider it a form of parole: You must learn to think and act differently to avoid future financial felonies. You'll be paying your debt not to society, but to yourself.
A few more CSI tips from the pros:
Have bail money. A $500 emergency fund can save you from slipping into debt once more. (Think you can't? See "An emergency fund out of thin air.") The EF is a shield against what author and consumer credit specialist Carrie Coghill calls "the surprise witness" -- the unexpected car repair or medical co-pay that can jeopardize your case.
Avoid becoming co-conspirators. You and your significant other need to be on the same page financially. Determine goals and a plan to achieve them, working on your own or with a financial planner.
Lawyer up. Attorneys help the accused make the best decisions they can. A financial planner or CPA can advise against money mistakes, such as overspending or failing to plan for retirement. Those on tight budgets may qualify for free financial coaching.
Don't hide the bodies. It's common for in-too-deep folks to stop opening their bills, or for shopaholics to lie about new purchases. Open the bills, cut up the cards and seek help. Note: Eventually you will need to confess to your partner and deal with the issues; financial infidelity can be a relationship killer.
Never doubt that $5 can make a difference, says Ellington: It's the first step toward taking control of your life. The biggest crime of all, he says, is "to do nothing because you think you can't do enough."
Save money todayGifts on a budget: You don't need to break the bank to put a smile on a child's face. "5 ways to impress your kids for less" contains ideas such as "gifting games" and "privilege coupon books."
More money?: Raises seem to be in short supply. Or are they? "Negotiate a higher salary in 2011" might help you fatten your check.
FSA countdown: Time is running out to use flexible spending account funds. "Use or lose: Your health care fund" reminds you of the ways in which to cash in.
Published Dec. 21, 2010