Credit & Debt Category
Dear Liz: What is your opinion of debt reduction programs? I am constantly receiving mail from various companies, and I was wondering if they are legit. They claim they can reduce my debt, which sounds promising, but I am hesitant to get involved with them.
Answer: You’ve got good instincts.
Many of the companies sending out these solicitations say they can settle your debt for pennies on the dollar. What they often fail to mention is that the debt settlement process can result in your being sued by your creditors and having your credit trashed. That’s assuming they try to settle your debt at all, rather than just disappearing with any money you pay them in advance.
If you’re struggling with too much debt, you should make two appointments: one with a legitimate credit counselor (visit the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at http://www.nfcc.org for referrals) to see whether you qualify for a debt management program to repay your credit card debt, and another with a bankruptcy attorney (check the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at http://www.nacba.org for referrals) to see whether a bankruptcy filing might be appropriate for your situation.
Dear Liz: I’m trying to transfer some credit card balances to existing accounts that are now offering 0% for 12 to 18 months. If I come close to maxing out the credit limit using one of those offers, will that affect my credit score adversely? Or, should I open up a new card, since I’ve gotten several 0% offers recently?
Answer: Using all or even most of your credit line on any revolving account can hurt your credit scores.
Although opening a new card may ding your scores a few points, it’s usually preferable to spread your debt over several accounts rather than pile it all on one card. This advice assumes you plan to use these offers to pay off your debt as rapidly as possible, rather than as an excuse to continue carrying balances.
If you can’t pay off your balances before the teaser rates expire, consider getting a three-year personal loan from your local credit union and using that to get free of debt. The interest rate you pay may be somewhat higher initially but you’ll likely save money in the long run.
Dear Liz: I need to refinance my home. My credit score has slipped a bit over the last year (still pretty good) and my wife has lost her job. I’m concerned that if we get denied, that will impact my credit score. Some have told me that inquiries from potential lenders can hurt the score but being denied doesn’t show up. What are the facts?
Answer: The credit scoring formula used by most mortgage lenders, the FICO, combines all mortgage-related inquiries made within a certain period and counts them as a single inquiry. (The period is generally 45 days.) Single inquiries typically knock less than 5 points off your scores. The scoring formula also ignores any inquiries made within the previous 30 days. That allows you to shop for a mortgage without unduly damaging your scores.
Being denied credit doesn’t knock any further points off your scores. Given your situation, though — lower income and lower scores — it would make sense to talk to a few lenders before submitting any applications so you’ll have a better idea of whether you’re wasting your time. Also, consider talking with a housing counselor approved by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. (You’ll find a link at http://www.hud.gov.) These counselors keep up with various refinancing programs and may be able to guide you to one that works in your situation.
Dear Liz: I’m in my early 30s and never carry cash. I charge everything on my debit card. This seems to be a topic of discussion in my office. My co-worker keeps getting his identity stolen and says that using debit cards to pay for everything wreaks havoc on your finances. He says I should use my credit card instead. I just finished paying off all the expenses that creep up when buying a house and really don’t want to start using credit cards again. I don’t think I’d be as good as keeping track of where my money goes when it’s not coming automatically out of my account. But I don’t want to end up losing it all now that identity theft is running rampant. What’s the best solution here?
Answer: What you like most about your debit card — that the charges come directly out of your checking account — is also its greatest flaw. A bad guy who gets access to your account can drain it, and you’re left fighting to get your money back.
Contrast that with fraud on a credit card: You’re not required to pay the disputed charges while the credit card issuer investigates.
That doesn’t mean you should never use a debit card, but you should avoid using it in higher-risk situations. Using a debit card for online purchases isn’t smart, because your computer could be compromised with malware and because merchants often store purchase information in less-than-secure databases.
You also shouldn’t hand your debit card to anyone who could take it out of your sight, such as a waiter at a restaurant, since that person can swipe it through a device called a skimmer to steal the card’s relevant information before handing it back to you. Gas stations and outdoor ATMs can be risky as well, since criminals can more easily install devices to swipe your information than at more protected, better supervised locations.
Even at trusted merchants, though, things can go wrong. Tampered debit card terminals at Michaels craft stores allowed thieves to access customers’ bank accounts.
Using a credit card clearly has advantages, and doesn’t have to be an invitation to debt. Most issuers allow you to set up text and email alerts that let you know when balances exceed limits you set. Apps on your smartphone can help you keep track of charges as well.
Vigilance is the key to limiting the damage caused by identity theft. You should review transactions regularly on all your credit and bank accounts, regardless of what method you choose to pay.
Finally, keep in mind that debit cards do nothing to improve your credit scores, since debit cards are not attached to credit accounts. Light but regular use of credit cards can help achieve good scores, which in turn will save you money on mortgages, auto loans, utility deposits and, in most states, insurance premiums. You don’t need to carry a balance to have good scores, so exercising a little discipline in tracking your balances and paying them in full each month can save you money.
Dear Liz: I have $40,000 in credit card debt due to home healthcare I had to provide for my mom, who lived with me for six years before she passed away in 2011. I filed a Veterans Affairs claim on her behalf but just got a VA check for $344 with no explanation about whether this was all it was going to allow. If it is, I need to file for bankruptcy. I owe $18,000 on my mortgage and $32,000 on a home equity loan I took out in 2001 to help my son get on his feet after he finished graduate school and had his first child. I also had some credit card debt from helping my brother in 2009 when he had cancer and could not work and his wife left him so he had no income. I also have $20,000 in a money market account that I call my retirement fund. Is it protected if I were to file for bankruptcy? The economic downturn caused me to have to take a $700-a-month pay cut the first of this year that will reduce my annual salary to $55,000 if there are no more cuts or layoffs. If they were to close the business completely, my Social Security benefit will be $1,900 per month, compared with $3,400 that I take home now. I have always paid my bills, but Mom’s medical expenses really have taken a toll on my finances.
Answer: Your debt exceeds your income, and few people in that situation manage to pay off what they owe. But bankruptcy isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card. Your home equity and your savings could be at risk. Had you actually put your money into a qualified retirement account, such as an IRA or a 401(k), it would have been protected from creditors. Just calling an account your retirement fund offers no protection whatsoever. A bankruptcy attorney familiar with the laws of your state can tell you what to expect. You can get a referral from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at http://www.nacba.org.
You also need to call the VA at (877) 222-VETS, or (877) 222-8387, to find out whether you can expect any more help. The VA does offer some long-term care benefits to veterans and their spouses who qualify for the aid. The time to request help, though, was when your mother was still alive.
Which leads us to the problem of your spending money you didn’t have to help people who may well have had other options. If your mother couldn’t get VA help, she may have had assets that could have paid for assistance. If not, she might have qualified for long-term care benefits through Medicaid, the federal healthcare plan for the indigent. Your brother also may have qualified for federal or state benefits. Your son may have had a rough time getting established, but he had a degree and a working lifetime ahead of him.
That doesn’t mean you should have thrown family members to the wolves. But it’s not clear you considered any other options before turning to credit. Sites such as Benefits.gov and the Eldercare Locator at http://www.eldercare.gov could have connected you and your family to resources that might have helped. Other family members may have been able to pitch in, or the people involved may have had assets to tap. If there truly were no other options, your assistance should have come out of your current income. If you have to borrow, then you really can’t afford to help.
As it is, your generosity has left you at the threshold of retirement with little savings and big debts. Let’s hope your family is as willing to help you in your old age as you were to help them.
Dear Liz: A few years ago when buying my son his college laptop computer, I applied for the store card at a big, well-known electronics store (at the encouragement of the sales associate). I was denied. I have never been denied a credit card before. I have eight cards that are always paid off monthly, own my own home and have a satisfactory retirement income and a top credit score. By receiving the card, I would have had a substantial savings on the computer. The denial has bothered me ever since. Was this a ploy on the company’s part to deny me the savings?
Answer: That kind of bait-and-switch happens sometimes, but there may be other reasons you were denied.
When you were turned down, the company should have provided you with the name, address and phone number of the credit agency it used to evaluate you. You should have immediately requested your report from the agency to see if the information was accurate. Someone may have stolen your identity, and credit denials are often the first sign many victims have that there’s a problem.
A collections account also could have torpedoed your scores. Many people discover that a medical bill, library fine or parking ticket went unpaid only when they find the resulting collections on their credit reports.
Dear Liz: I understand that creditors eventually write off unpaid debts and receive a federal tax deduction for the loss. Then they sell that “debt” to a collection agency. However, isn’t the debt rendered void by the fact the original creditor charged it off and got the deduction? So how can collection agencies attempt to collect an invalid debt?
Answer: Charging off a debt and taking the tax deduction for the loss indicates the original creditor doesn’t believe it can collect the money. That doesn’t render the debt invalid or erase it in a legal sense. Debts typically exist until they are paid, settled or wiped out in Bankruptcy Court.
Dear Liz: My husband and I are self-employed. As we pay our bills, we are often a few thousand dollars short as we wait to be paid by our clients. Until now, we’ve been using a home equity line of credit to bridge the gap. We are ultra-responsible about paying it back. But our current 10-year draw period ends this month, and our lender has denied us either a new HELOC or a refinance. Is there another product that would help us? It would be sad if the only way to maintain our life is to sell our house, but that might be where we are if we can’t find some small line of credit.
Answer: Talk to the bank that has your business checking and savings accounts about the possibility of opening a line of credit. This is a standard tool for businesses of all sizes, but can be particularly helpful for small-business owners who have cash flow challenges. The interest rates on business credit lines are typically low, and you may be offered higher limits over time as you use the account responsibly.
If your bank isn’t interested in helping you, ask other entrepreneurs to help you find a more business-friendly financial institution. A community bank may be more flexible and more interested in winning your business than bigger, name-brand banks, but the experiences of fellow small-business owners can guide you to the best options in your community.
Dear Liz: I co-signed a credit card for someone and the person defaulted on payment. I started making payments but could not continue because I became unemployed. The debt started at $15,631.23 but has gone up to $17,088.08 because of interest and fees. I previously had to go to court because my bank account was frozen. I recently got a notice about this again. Should I file for bankruptcy or try contacting the attorneys who are seeking payment? I am working part-time and have a tight budget. I don’t have anything saved and am living from paycheck to paycheck.
Answer: You should have gone to a bankruptcy attorney the first time you got sued.
Many people try to ignore their debts or hope that collection agencies will be lenient. That’s not a good strategy at a time when collectors are increasingly willing to file lawsuits to get paid, said Gerri Detweiler, director of consumer education for Credit.com. Once collectors have a judgment against you, they can freeze your bank accounts or garnishee your paycheck.
If you don’t have anything saved and can’t come up with any money for payments, you have little leverage in dealing with a collection agency. Bankruptcy may be your only recourse to get these collection efforts to stop.
A bankruptcy attorney can let you know whether you are “judgment proof,” which basically means that you have and make too little for a creditor to collect on any judgments. If you are judgment proof, you may not need to file for bankruptcy, but you may have to deal with frozen accounts and regular trips to court when a collector oversteps.
You can get a referral from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at http://www.nacba.org.
The only silver lining of this situation is that you’ve provided other people with a clear lesson in why they shouldn’t co-sign a credit card or any other loan for someone else.
Dear Liz: I am a 67-year-old college instructor who plans to teach full time for at least eight more years. Last year I began collecting spousal benefits based on my ex-husband’s Social Security earnings record. Those benefits give me an extra $1,250 each month above my regular income. I have been using the money to pay down a home equity line of credit that I have on my condo. The credit line now has a balance of $29,000. I have about $200,000 in mutual funds and should have a small pension when I retire. (I went into teaching only a few years ago.) Would it be better for me to split the extra monthly $1,250 into investments as well as paying off my line of credit? The idea of having no loan on my condo appeals to me, but I wonder if I should try to invest in stocks and bonds instead.
Answer: Paying down debt is important, but opportunities to save in tax-advantaged retirement plans are typically more important. Fortunately, you probably have enough money to do both.
First investigate whether your college offers a 403(b) or other retirement program that offers a match. If it does, you should be contributing at least enough to that plan to get the full match.
Your next step is to explore an IRA. Since you’re covered by at least one retirement plan at work (your pension), you would be able to deduct a full IRA contribution only if your modified adjusted gross income as a single taxpayer is $59,000 or less in 2013. The ability to deduct a contribution phases out completely at $69,000.
If you can’t deduct your contribution, consider putting the money into a Roth IRA instead. Roth contributions aren’t deductible, but withdrawals in retirement are tax free. Having a bucket of tax-free money to draw upon in retirement can help you better manage your tax bill, which is why some investors opt to contribute to Roths even when they could get a deduction elsewhere.
People 50 and older can contribute up to $6,500 this year directly to a Roth if their income is under certain limits. (For singles, the limit for a full contribution is a modified adjusted gross income of $112,000 or less.) If your income is over the limit, you can contribute to a traditional IRA and then immediately convert the money into a Roth IRA, since there’s no income limit on conversions. (This is known as a “back door” Roth contribution.)
Since you’re so close to retirement, you don’t want to overdose on stocks, but you still need a significant amount of stock market exposure so that your money has a chance to offset future inflation. You might consider a balanced fund that invests 60% in stocks, 40% in bonds.
Once you’ve taken advantage of your retirement savings options, you can direct the rest of your Social Security benefit to paying off your home equity line. These credit lines typically have low but variable rates. Higher interest rates are likely in our future, so paying this line down over time is a prudent move.