Q&A: Options for high debt, low income

Dear Liz: I’m 87 and drowning in debt, owing more than $21,000 with an income of $23,000 from Social Security and two small pensions. I don’t like the idea of debt consolidation but is that better than bankruptcy? My only asset is a 2003 car.

Answer: Debt consolidation merely replaces one type of debt (say, credit cards) with another, typically a personal loan. You are unlikely to qualify for such a loan and even if you did, your situation wouldn’t improve much if at all because your debt is so large relative to your income.

You may be confusing debt consolidation with debt settlement, which is where you or someone you hire tries to settle debts for less than what you owe. Debt settlement can take years and may not result in much savings, since the forgiven debt is considered taxable income and hiring a debt settlement company can cost thousands of dollars. In addition, people in the debt settlement process risk being sued by their creditors. Bankruptcy is typically a better option for most people because it costs less, is completed more quickly and ends the threat of lawsuits.

You may not need to file for bankruptcy, however, if you’re “judgment proof,” which means that even if you stop paying your creditors and they successfully sue you, the creditors wouldn’t be able to collect on those judgments. That’s typically the case when someone’s income comes from protected sources, such as Social Security and certain pensions, and they don’t have any assets a creditor can seize.

Please discuss your situation with a bankruptcy attorney who can review your options. You can get a referral from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at www.nacba.org.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Get to know your 401(k) plan. Also in the news: How one couple ditched debt, having the talk about college costs with your teen, and what to do if you’re affected by Marriott’s huge data breach.

Get to Know Your 401(k) Plan
Everything you need to know.

How I Ditched Debt: ‘We Have Choices Again’
One couple’s story.

Having ‘The Talk’ About College Costs With Your Teen
Keeping expectations in check.

What to Do If You’re Affected by Marriott’s Data Breach
Over 500,000,000 customers are affected.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Identity theft risks for holiday shoppers. Also in the news: What to buy and skip in December, paying down student debt on a nonprofit salary, and how to make the most of the child tax credit this year.

Holiday Shoppers, Beware of These 3 Identity Theft Risks
Watch out for grinches.

What to Buy (and Skip) in December
Hold off on jewelry.

Debt Diary: Paying Down $19K in Student Debt on a Nonprofit Salary
One man’s journey.

How to make the most of the child tax credit this year
A look at the changes.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: With money goals, multitasking pays off. Also in the news: Snagging hotel loyalty perks, what to know about high yield reward checking accounts, and how to not let debt ruin your holiday.

With Money Goals, Multitasking Pays Off
There needs to be more than just paying off debt.

Snag These Hotel Loyalty Perks, Even if You’re Disloyal
It all depends on the right card.

What to Know About High Yield Reward Checking Accounts
Some accounts offer interest as high as 5%.

Don’t Let Debt Ruin Your Holiday
Some people are still paying off last year’s gifts.

With money goals, multitasking pays off

Tackling money goals one at a time cost financial literacy expert Barbara O’Neill at least $1 million.

That’s how much O’Neill, a distinguished professor at Rutgers University, figures she lost by starting saving for retirement only after she had created an emergency fund, bought a car with cash and purchased a home.

“I tell students that eventually, 30 years later, I hit the million-dollar mark, but I could’ve had $2 million,” O’Neill says.

Too often, financial experts say, people want to attack their money goals one at a time: “As soon as I pay off my credit card debt, then I’ll start saving for a home,” or, “As soon as I pay off my student loan debt, then I’ll start saving for retirement.”

These folks don’t realize how costly the words “as soon as” can be. In my latest for the Associated Press, paying off debt is a worthy goal, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of other goals, particularly saving for retirement.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 5 questions to ask before buying life insurance at work. Also in the news: Why credit cards should get another chance after you pay off debt, how not to get spooked by your credit card bill this Halloween, and setting up your financial accounts like you’re going to be hacked.

Answer 5 Questions Before Buying Life Insurance at Work
What to ask yourself before signing up.

Why Credit Cards Should Get Another Chance After You Pay Off Debt
The rewards are worth it.

This Halloween, Don’t Get Spooked by Your Credit Card Bill
How to avoid sticker shock.

Set Up Your Financial Accounts Like You’re Going to Be Hacked
Beat hackers to the punch.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How an engineer digs out of $100,000 in loans. Also in the news: What to do if Hurricane Florence hits your home and/or mortgage, 3 low-stress ways to invest for retirement, and the pros and cons of identity monitoring.

Debt Diary: How an Engineer Digs Out of $100,000 in Loans
Accounting for every single expense.

What to Do If Hurricane Florence Hits Your Home, Mortgage
Recovering from disaster.

3 Low-Stress Ways to Invest for Retirement
How to get started.

The Pros and Cons of Identity Monitoring Services
Are they worth the expense?

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Ditching debt while budgeting for a baby. Also in the news: What to do if Hurricane Florence hits your home and/or mortgage, five people who are crushing student debt, and what you can learn from the last financial crisis to help you with the next.

How I Ditched Debt: Changing Habits, Budgeting for a Baby
A shift in priorities.

What to Do If Hurricane Florence Hits Your Home, Mortgage
The Category 4 storm is heading towards the Carolinas.

Meet 5 People Who Are Crushing Student Debt
Tips from the masters.

Here’s what you can learn from the last financial crisis that will help you with the next
Planning ahead.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: What to do if Hurricane Florence hits your home, mortgage. Also in the news: How to choose a college major with loan debt in mind, the pros and cons of product subscriptions, and the 10 cities where Millennials have the most debt.

What to Do If Hurricane Florence Hits Your Home, Mortgage
Things to do immediately.

Razors, Makeup, Hot Sauce — You Can Subscribe to Almost Anything. But Should You?
Are the discounts truly worth it?

These 10 Cities Are Where Millennials Have The Most Debt
San Antonio leads the way.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 4 ways to get a sales price when there isn’t a sale. Also in the news: What to buy and skip in September, why your kid’s after-school job may mean tax homework for you, and why your credit card debt is worse than your mortgage debt.

4 Ways to Get a Sale Price When There Isn’t a Sale
It can be as simple as just asking for one.

What to Buy (and Skip) in September
Skip the televisions.

Your Kid’s After-School Job May Mean Tax Homework for You
When to file a return.

Your Credit Card Debt Is Worse Than Your Mortgage Debt
The difference between good and bad debt.