Dear Liz: My husband and I are in a huge amount of debt. I understand that there are nonprofit agencies that can sit down with us and help us develop repayment plans and strategies. How do I find a reputable one?
Answer: Contact the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at (800) 388-2227 for a referral to a legitimate, accredited, nonprofit credit counseling agency in your area. A counselor can review your financial situation, help you with budgeting and see whether you’re a candidate for a debt management plan, which would allow you to pay off your credit card debt over time, perhaps at a lower interest rate.
You also should consider making an appointment with an experienced bankruptcy attorney. You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at http://www.nacba.org. A credit counselor may try to steer you away from bankruptcy, whereas an attorney can let you know if it might be a better option.
Unfortunately, many people wait too long before they contact a credit counselor. They may be approved for a debt management plan but find themselves unable to stick with the plan long enough to pay off their debt. In other words, they continue to struggle with debt that they ultimately can’t pay. Understanding all your options, including bankruptcy, can help you make a better choice about what to do next.
Dear Liz: My husband and I are wondering whether it is time to file for bankruptcy. We have about $20,000 in credit card debt, largely because of a home addition and remodeling project my husband began five years ago. It has been much more costly and time consuming than he anticipated and is not even close to being finished. That prevents us from being able to refinance, which would free up money to pay our debt.
A mortgage broker recently suggested we apply for a home equity line to get enough cash for materials and labor to finish this project. We pay our mortgage and two car loans on time and make at least minimum payments on the cards.
My husband’s health has been declining, making it very difficult for him to do physical work on this project, and one of our kids has had two surgeries in the last few years, so there have been a lot of medical bills as well. How should we proceed?
Answer: You’re having trouble managing the debt you already have, so it’s definitely risky take on more. On the other hand, if you have enough home equity to get a line of credit, that could be a path out of this mess.
First, though, make an appointment with an experienced bankruptcy attorney (you can get referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at http://www.nacba.org). A credit card balance of $20,000 isn’t by itself insurmountable, depending on your income, but the fact that you’re not paying much more than the minimums on your cards is a huge red flag — as are those medical bills.
The lawyer can review your situation and let you know whether bankruptcy is even a reasonable option. Each state’s laws differ, so you need to consult an expert.
If you decide instead to take out the home equity line, make sure you hire a competent and well-recommended contractor to finish what your husband started. The last thing you need is for someone else to botch the job.
Dear Liz: I had credit scores over 800 with no late payments ever. Unfortunately, a medical issue required me to charge $24,500 to a credit card. That led to a bankruptcy, which was discharged in July 2011. My scores dropped to 672, and they’re currently around 680. I’m paying two unsecured credit cards in full each month plus an auto loan that was reaffirmed in bankruptcy. I would like to continue rehabilitating my scores by applying for another loan. When a company requests my credit scores, does it also see my bankruptcy, and would that prevent me from getting credit?
Answer: Some lenders look just at credit scores, while others request credit reports along with your scores. Your bankruptcy or your scores could cause lenders to charge a higher interest rate or refuse to give you credit.
It’s not clear that the scores you’re seeing are FICO scores, however. A bankruptcy would have dropped your FICOs into the 500s, and it’s unlikely they would return to the high 600s in less than a year. What you may be seeing are VantageScores, which have a different score range: 500 to 990, compared with FICO’s 300 to 850.
If you want to see your FICO scores, which are the ones most lenders use, you can buy them for about $20 each at MyFico.com. Scores offered at other sites typically aren’t FICO scores but may be VantageScores or “consumer education scores” that aren’t widely used by lenders.
You’re doing the right things by using a mix of credit (credit cards and an installment loan) and paying your bills on time. You should know, though, that there’s no way to quickly restore your scores to their old levels. It typically takes seven to 10 years for FICOs to recover from a bankruptcy.
But let’s back up a minute. You almost certainly made a mistake by charging your medical care to a credit card. You may have been able to qualify for a discount on your care if you hadn’t. Many medical providers offer charity programs that cut or eliminate the bill for people making up to 400% of the federal poverty line. A single person could make up to $44,680 and still qualify for a break under many providers’ programs.
If you make too much to qualify for financial aid, you could still have negotiated a discount by asking the provider to charge you the same rate that its largest insurer pays. The uninsured are often charged a much higher “sticker price” for medical care than what insurers pay, but if asked, many providers are willing to provide the same discounts.
If nothing else, you probably could have qualified for an interest-free payment program. Once you charged the bill to your card, however, you lost all your leverage to get a discount.
Dear Liz: I am having a terrible time with my finances. I am a single woman with no kids, and I work as a teacher at a charter school making $40,000 a year. I am working with a debt management program to pay off my credit cards. But I am constantly late in paying my bills and often bounce checks, which costs me money I don’t have to cover the fees. I can’t even save. I’m actively seeking another job or an additional part-time job, but no luck so far. I am in default on my student loans (they want me to pay $700 a month, but I can’t). I am very depressed and am so tired of this. I have holes in my tennis shoes and I can’t afford new ones. I am on a strict budget, I use coupons, don’t go out much anymore (which makes me more depressed because I am cooped up all the time). I have house problems that I need to deal with but can’t. I hate living like this. I honestly don’t know what to do. Please help.
Answer: The first thing you need to do is opt out of your bank’s bounced-check protection program. You may think you need to borrow money this way to make ends meet, but as you’ve discovered, it’s driving you further into the hole.
Next, rethink your participation in the debt management program. It was honorable of you to try to avoid bankruptcy, but it’s pretty clear you can’t afford to continue with this program if doing so leaves you in default on your student loan obligations. Credit card debts can be erased in Bankruptcy Court; student loan debt can almost never be wiped out that way.
If you have federal student loans, you may be able to qualify for the income-based repayment program, which caps your payment at a reasonable amount and erases any remaining balance after 10 years in a public service job (such as teaching in the public school system). Otherwise, the balance is erased after 25 years of payments. If you have private loans, you have far fewer options for repayment, but wiping out the credit card debt would free up more money to pay these loans back. Talk to your lenders to see what options you may have.
Another factor to consider is how much you’re spending on housing. If you own a home, the mortgage and related home-owning costs may simply be too much for you on your current income. Getting rid of the house in a short sale, or even letting it go into foreclosure, may be a far better option than continuing to cling to a home you can’t afford.
Bankruptcy, short sales and foreclosures are all drastic options. But some financial problems are so great that a drastic solution is the only reasonable choice if you ever want to get back on your financial feet.
Dear Liz: I filed for bankruptcy this year. There was no way to avoid it. What do I do to start reestablishing credit and raising my credit score? How long does it take for life to get back to normal so that I can go to a regular car dealership to buy a vehicle instead of using some seedy automobile dealership with 22% rates?
Answer: It can take five years after a bankruptcy for your FICO credit scores to return to the 680 range, which is about where auto loan interest rates start to get more reasonable. People with FICOs in the 660 to 690 range got interest rates averaging about 7.5%, according to the MyFico.com site, compared with 11% and up for those with lower scores. It can take seven or more years to boost your scores above 720, which is where the truly low rates (4% and below) can be had.
To rehabilitate your scores as quickly as possible, first review your credit reports at http://www.annualcreditreport.com to make sure all the debts that were included in bankruptcy are listed that way. If you have any open credit card accounts, use them lightly but regularly and pay them off in full every month. “Lightly” means using less than 30% of your credit limits. If you don’t have a card, consider applying for a secured card, which gives you a credit limit equal to an amount you deposit with the issuing bank, typically $200 to $1,000. You can find secured card offers at several websites, including LowCards.com, CreditCards.com, CardRatings.com and NerdWallet.com.
After a year or so, consider adding an installment loan such as a personal loan or an auto loan to your credit mix. A credit union may give you a more reasonable rate than a traditional bank. Paying off that loan should help boost your scores.
Don’t close accounts or apply for a bunch of new accounts. Pay all your bills on time and don’t let disputes or medical bills wind up in collections.
There aren’t any quick fixes, so don’t waste your money on credit repair firms or other pitches that promise instant results. What will repair your score is using credit responsibly over time.
Dear Liz: I was recently solicited by a credit card company. I didn’t need another credit card, but this offered airlines miles that I collect, so I applied. They didn’t approve the application because: “You have filed for bankruptcy and your previous account(s) with us was included in that filing. This includes any of your accounts issued by (us) such as Visa, MasterCard, store cards or gas cards.” Liz, the bankruptcy was 12 years ago, and I am very well financially situated now. I thought there was an expiration date on bankruptcies appearing on your credit report.
Answer: There is. Bankruptcies have to be removed from your credit reports after 10 years.
Individual lenders, though, are allowed to have much longer memories. And some have opted not to forget. If you ever file a bankruptcy that wipes out debt on one of the accounts they issue, they may never again approve you for credit. That’s perfectly legal.
Not all lenders are so unforgiving, of course, and those who don’t know about your bankruptcy likely will be perfectly willing to extend you credit as long as your credit scores are good. But you’re probably wasting your time trying to induce this once-spurned lender to change its mind.
Dear Liz: I was hurt on the job and was fired. I have a lawyer helping me fight the company, but I have no income and I’m being haunted by collection agencies. I owe $5,000 on credit cards and have a student loan that started at $20,000 but is now $30,000. I was thinking of filing for bankruptcy. I have nothing, and I feel bad all the time. I can’t afford Christmas or birthday presents or find a job that I can do. Any advice would be helpful.
Answer: Bankruptcy could wipe out your credit card debt but probably won’t erase your student loans. Student loan debt usually can’t be discharged in bankruptcy unless you’re totally and permanently disabled. Since you’ve been looking for work, that doesn’t seem to be your situation.
Besides, filing for bankruptcy costs money that you probably don’t have. A Chapter 7 filing can easily cost $1,500.
What you might want to do instead is discuss your situation with a bankruptcy attorney to find out if you might be “judgment proof.” If you are, your creditors can still sue you, but they’ll be unable to collect — at least until your circumstances improve.
Many bankruptcy attorneys offer free or discounted initial sessions. You can get a referral from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, or find an attorney through its website at http://www.nacba.org.
In the meantime, you can visit DebtCollectionAnswers.com for strategies on how to deal with collection agencies when you can’t pay.
Dear Liz: You dropped the ball badly in your response to the man who was in debt after an ill-advised career change. Why didn’t you mention the “B” (bankruptcy) word? Like the gentleman in your article, my wife and I found ourselves overloaded with debt. We took on too much debt in starting our own small business in 2005. Things went very well for a couple of years and then we, like the rest of America, got caught up in the Great Recession. We went through consumer credit counseling and the counselor advised us that bankruptcy was an option we should consider. We filed in November 2010 and it was finalized in January 2011. We were able to keep our business. We also kept our house and our vehicles, which have loans outstanding, by “reaffirming” those debts. Bankruptcy is not a crime. It is the last resort, and it is unpleasant but it is an option. And here’s the kicker for us: Two months after the finalization of our bankruptcy, both my wife and I started receiving credit card offers in the mail (again). Don’t worry, history will not repeat itself in our case.
Answer: Bankruptcy is frequently mentioned in this column as a possible solution for overwhelming debt. Having a lot of debt isn’t the same as being overwhelmed by it, however. What matters is whether you’re able to make sufficient progress on paying down that debt.
The gentleman in question might discover that getting rid of a too-expensive house frees up money to pay down the family’s debt. Otherwise, it would be smart to talk to both a legitimate credit counselor (the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, at http://www.nfcc.org, has referrals) and an experienced bankruptcy attorney (referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys are at http://www.nacba.orghttp://www.nacba.org).
Dear Liz: I opened a free checking account at a bank that has since been bought out by another. Recently the new owners started charging a $10 monthly service fee. How are they allowed to do this? Aren’t accounts “grandfathered”? Or is that up to the bank? In today’s economy with unemployment so high and more and more people, like me, living below the poverty level, this seems a step backward for any bank. With the recent bank bailouts and the bad reputation banks have, it would seem that “goodwill” would matter at least a little. When I asked the teller to justify the change she replied, “This is a huge bank. We don’t have to justify anything we do.”
Answer: Your teller gave you your answer. Goodwill doesn’t count for much when banks are trying to maximize revenue.
And there’s certainly no law requiring the new owner to honor the old bank’s promises. The new owners can charge new fees, alter policies and change interest rates on savings accounts and certificates of deposit.
Checking account fees are making a big comeback lately. Banks are claiming these new fees are necessary because regulators restricted one of their big sources of income: bounce fees. Starting last summer, banks were required to get customers’ permission before signing them up for “courtesy overdraft” services that allowed the banks to charge $35 or so each for over-limit transactions. When finally given the choice, many of those customers declined to opt in to the expensive programs and bounce fee income plummeted.
So banks are experimenting with other fees, but you still have options. Often the fees are waived if you maintain a minimum account balance, for example. In your case, that might be tough, so you might want to consider moving your accounts to another bank or a credit union. Credit unions are member-owned financial institutions, and many still offer free checking or have lower fees for low-balance accounts. To see which credit unions you might join, visit http://www.findacreditunion.com.