Huge debts? Where to find help

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.

Botched remodel holding up refinancing

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.

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Restoring credit scores after bankruptcy

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.