Credit can be an excellent financial tool if used wisely. It builds up your credit history, increases your credit score, and thus increases your ability to obtain more credit and all types of loans. However, it can also harm you if you aren’t able to manage your credit and fall into debt. In that case it will have the exact opposite effect. It can be difficult to dig yourself out once you’ve gotten into debt. You may find yourself accepting unfavorable terms on more credit cards just to get by, and using credit cards to pay for thing that you shouldn’t… digging a deeper hole. There comes a time when you’ll need to actually put together a plan to get yourself out of debt. Here are some strategies.
Get control over your spending so that you can put as much money as possible towards repaying your debt. Start by identifying all your sources of income, then all of your monthly expenses… everything. You can use this budget worksheet to help you calculate and see the big picture. Once you have a clear picture of your finances, you can identify areas where you can cut back and save more money to apply to your debt.
In this method, you put as much money as you can towards your debt with the lowest balance. You must still make minimum payments on all other accounts, but pay as much as you can towards this account. Once it is paid off, use the same strategy on the next smallest balance, and so on. Since you’re paying off smaller balances, you will see the results more quickly and this will motivate you to keep working at it.
This is similar to the Debt Snowball approach, only you focus on the interest rates. Choose your account with the highest interest rate and apply as much funds as you can towards paying it off each month. Again, you must continue to make the minimum payments on all other accounts. Once paid off, move to the next highest interest rate, and so on. Using this method, you will eliminate the debts that are costing you the most in interest charges first.
Did you know that you can call up your creditors and ask for a break? Oh, you still have to pay them back, but they might be willing to temporarily lower your interest rate, lower your minimum payment, or reduce fees. These are not advertised offers, but it’s very likely that your creditor has a “hardship program.” You can call up your creditor and tell them you’re having difficulty repaying the debt, and would like to speak to someone about what they can do to help. Be prepared to discuss and prove your income level and your expenses that contribute to your hardship. They may decide not to help you out, but you can certainly ask.
Would you be able to pay off your debt if the interest rate were lower, or if it were zero? You could obtain a new credit card account with a low or zero introductory rate and transfer the balance from another account. That rate may only be in effect for a few months (usually no more than a year). So, make sure you can pay off the balance while within that promotional period.
Debt settlement is a negotiated reduction of your owed balance, where a lump sum payment is made to your creditor. Creditors typically won’t consider accepting a settlement until you are a few months past due for payment. So you must first do damage to your credit report. If you don’t have the funds for a lump sum payment, a debt settlement company can set up a third party trust account in which your funds can accumulate. You essentially make payments to the settlement company instead of your creditor for a few months. Once your savings are built up enough, the negotiation can begin. The debt settlement company will take a percentage of the agreed upon amount. Accounts that are reported as settled are scored negatively on a credit report. Your report will contain negative information from the previous missed payments. Also, once paid off, your credit report won’t show these accounts as “paid in full.” They will go on record as “paid-settled”, which looks much worse to potential lenders.
After debt settlement, the negative information can remain on your report for up to seven years. It will also be very difficult to add positive information moving forward, as the negative information will make it very hard to obtain any new loans or credit.
Bankruptcy is generally the last resort for addressing a debt problem. When filing bankruptcy you have two different chapters, chapter 7 which discharges most unsecured debts except(most student loans, taxes, child support and alimony) and chapter 13 which restructures your debt and you work out a plan to pay a portion of it back over a 3-5 year period. Conducting a means test would determine which bankruptcy you would be able to file based on your states guidelines. In either case, bankruptcy may remain on your credit report for 7-10 years making it more difficult to obtain a loan or credit with a low interest rate. For more helpful information, visit www.ConsumerCredit.org.
Credit counseling is a process where a certified personal finance counselor reviews your financial situation, and provides education and advice on how to better manage your finances. The process includes a complete budget analysis, where all income and expenses are determined. The cause of the debt is determined and all possible repayment solutions are examined. A credit counseling agency can help an individual determine the best repayment option, while also offering education to help them manage their personal finances and avoid problems in the future. Options can include bankruptcy, a debt management plan, or simply a revised budget plan. Agencies typically offer free counseling, only charging fees if you opt to enter a debt management plan (video). Credit counseling itself will have no effect on your credit report. A debt management plan will be noted on your credit report, and can potentially be seen as a negative to potential creditors, but not nearly in the same destructive way as bankruptcy or debt settlement.
Keep in mind that there is no one strategy that is perfect for everyone. A Debt Snowball may work perfectly for one person, but another person may be better off filing for bankruptcy. You should contact a certified, non-profit credit counselor to go over your financial situation and help you determine the best plan of action to help you get out of debt. It’s free, and will help you make the best decision.
Here’s how to find a legitimate credit counseling agency (video).