What percentage of your family budget is your mortgage or rent check?

According to recently released 2007 census figures, 7.5 million Americans spend at least half their income on their housing expenses. That’s 15 percent of all Americans, up some 400,000 from the year before.

For most family budgets, housing expenses combined with rising food and fuel prices is enough to break the bank.

“Rising unemployment, the continuing mortgage and credit crisis and rising food and fuel costs are causing people with good incomes to seek help paying their debt,” said Suzanne Boas, president of Consumer Credit Counseling Service (CCCS) of Greater Atlanta.

According to a CCCS of Greater Atlanta survey of more than 5,500 families seeking budget assistance and credit counseling in August, the average person counseled spent $638 for food and fuel, which is 20 percent higher than the amount people were spending in January, just eight months earlier. The survey noted that while the price for fuel was lower in August, food prices are substantially higher.

Family budgets are being stretched as higher interest rates kick monthly mortgage and home equity loan and line of credit payments skyward. The survey noted that those seeking credit counseling, who own their own home, reporting monthly housing costs of $1,423, or a cost that is 25 percent higher than those seeking credit counseling a year earlier.

More people with a higher annual income are seeking assistance with reformulating their family budgets, Boas said.

The typical family being counseled had an average household income of $49,308, or $4,109 per month. That’s 18 percent higher than a year ago.

“People with middle-class incomes are finding it more and more difficult to meet their financial obligations,” Boas added.

The credit crunch has certainly squeezed American wallets. Rising interest rates translate into higher monthly debt payments. Rising food and fuel prices are adding to the pain. The blogosphere is filled with stories of people who are choosing between food and medicine, mortgage payments and enough gas to get to work.

For families whose budgets are maxed out, losing a job or incurring an extraordinary expense can wreak havoc financially. Missing payments means you’ve dinged your credit history and lowered your credit score, making it harder to refinance in an era when high credit scores are prized.

What can help?

If your budget is so tight that there isn’t even a nickel left over at the end of the month, you’ve got two choices: Find a way to squeeze your family budget or figure out a way to bring in more income.

Can you trade babysitting nights instead of paying someone else? Can you take public transportation to work or set up a ride sharing program instead of driving yourself every day? Can you ride your bike? Can you brown bag your lunch and can you cut back on junk food and sodas at the grocery store?

Can you take a second or third job on the weekends? Can your teenagers work part-time or do babysitting on the weekends to help out with at least their own expenses, if not more general family expenses?

While family budget meetings aren’t always the more fun way to spend a night, it’s important to share what’s going on with your kids. If you invite them into the conversation, you might find that they’ll offer their help at solving the problem.

Finally, look into refinancing your mortgage if your interest rate is above 7 percent. Even if your credit isn’t perfect, you may still qualify for an FHA loan, backed by the Federal Housing Administration. An FHA loan can help you move from a variable, more expensive mortgage to a lower-cost fixed-rate loan. Find out more at www.hud.gov.