Dealing with collectors? Here’s a free ebook to help

dca-new-ebook-free-3DsmGetting calls from collection agencies, or spotting collection accounts on your credit reports, can be scary. You can deal with this, but not alone. Check out  “Debt Collection Answers: How to Use Debt Collection Laws to Protect Your Rights,” which is now a free ebook on Smashwords. You can get it here:

Written by long-time consumer educators and advocates Gerri Detweiler and Mary Reed, this book will tell you what you need to know to deal with collection accounts and fight unethical collection agencies. Longtime readers of the column will recognize Gerri’s name, because she’s the person I turn to when I have questions about debt and debt collections.

Get the book and get started!

UPDATE: Gerri tells me some people have trouble downloading from Smashwords, so here’s another link:



Beware debt reduction offers

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 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 for referrals) to see whether a bankruptcy filing might be appropriate for your situation.

Dragging debt? You’re not ready to retire

Dear Liz: I just turned 65 and had planned to wait until 70 to retire. I love the actual work I do but my boss is very challenging. I’m starting to question whether working here another five years is really how I want to spend my days at this point in my life. I have about $175,000 in my 401(k), about $35,000 in an IRA and $1,500 in a single stock that’s not in a retirement account. I have two years left on my primary mortgage and a $17,000 balance on my second mortgage, plus I owe $3,500 on a line of credit and $2,000 on credit cards. I was starting to take money out of my IRA to pay down my mortgage early but the taxes at the end of the year were so much that I stopped that distribution. (I still owe $500 to the state tax agency.) I have also had trouble keeping up with my property taxes and owe about $3,500. I live in a 900-square-foot home which I love and live a fairly simple life. I’m wondering about cashing in the stock and some of my IRA to pay down my debt, then using my 401(k) for living expenses until I actually draw from Social Security. As I’m typing this out I’m thinking, “Are you crazy?” I’d love your thoughts.

Answer: One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.

Tapping your IRA incurred a big tax bill that you’ve yet to fully repay. You also lost all the future tax-deferred gains that money could have earned. Why would you consider doing that again?

You may long for retirement, but it’s pretty clear you aren’t ready. You don’t have a lot of savings, given how long retirement can last, and you’re dragging a lot of debt. The type of debt you have — second mortgages, credit lines, credit cards — is an indicator you’re regularly spending beyond your means. If you can’t live within your income now, you’ll have a terrible time when it drops in retirement.

So instead of bailing on work, take retirement for a test drive instead. Figure out how much you’d get from Social Security at your full retirement age next year (you can get an estimate at Add $700 a month to that figure, since that’s what you could withdraw from your current retirement account balances without too great a risk of running out of money. Once you figure out how to live on that amount, you can put the rest of your income toward paying off debt (starting with your overdue taxes), building up your retirement accounts and creating an emergency fund. It’s OK to cash out the stock to pay off debt, since it’s not in a retirement account, but make sure you set aside enough of the proceeds to cover the resulting tax bill.

Don’t forget to budget for medical expenses, including Medicare premiums and out-of-pocket costs. Fidelity estimates a typical couple retiring in 2013 should have $220,000 to pay out-of-pocket medical expenses that aren’t covered by Medicare. That doesn’t include long-term-care costs. Your costs may be lower, but you’ll want to budget conservatively. Spend some time with the Nolo Press book “Social Security, Medicare & Government Pensions: Get the Most out of Your Retirement & Medical Benefits.”

You’ll be ready to retire when you’re debt-free and able to live on your expected income without leaning on credit.

Helping family led to unpayable debts

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

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 and the Eldercare Locator at 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.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

School Kids DiversitySaving on back-to-school shopping, tool to make managing your money easier, and what you need to do financially when your marriage comes to an end.

Be Smart on Back-to-School Shopping
How to fill their backpacks without emptying your wallet.

8 Money Tools You Should Try
8 tools to make managing your money much easier.

How To Reduce Your Debts Without Spending Unnecessarily
You shouldn’t have spend money to get out of debt.

Save Your Way to $1 Million Dollars
It might be easier than you think!

We’re Getting A Divorce, Now What?
Ways to protect yourself financially when your marriage comes to its end.

Co-signing card leads to collectors’ calls

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 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

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.

In case you missed it: the youth edition

Cut up cardsSpurning credit cards means younger people have less toxic debt but they may be doing inadvertent damage to their credit scores and costing themselves money. Learn more in “Why young people hate credit cards.

Read some smart answers to the awkward questions your kids may ask about family finances in “One way money is a lot like sex.

You’ve probably read that student loan rates doubled on Monday, but that’s not quite true. Read “Student loan rates: Facts amid the fictions” for the straight scoop.

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

creditThe mystery behind credit scores, why buy a dress when you can rent one, and what turns Americans off about haggling.

What Really Influences Your Credit Score?
The creators of the VantageScore, a rival to the leading FICO, discuss the formula behind the numbers.

Taking Control of Your Personal Debt

While the math may be simple, the choices can be difficult.

Should You Rent Your Next Dress?
Why pay thousands for a designer dress you’ll wear only a few times?

The Secrets of Super Travelers
How to travel like the pros.

Haggling Can Pay, But Many Americans Refuse to Bargain
Why Americans are wary of this worldwide custom.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Champagne glassesFinancial survival tips for before the wedding and after the marriage ends, freedom from credit card debt, and beating the retirement clock.

Engaged? You Might Need Money Therapy
Things you should know before you walk down the aisle.

How Does Divorce Affect Bankruptcy and Mortgage
Things you should know for when the walk down the aisle fails.

Declare Your Independence From Credit Card Debt
Life, liberty and the pursuit of zero debt.

How to Get Help From a Student Loan Mediator
Student loan battles don’t have to be fought alone.
What to Do When You Haven’t Saved Enough for Retirement
How to get by when time isn’t on your side.

Save or pay debt? Do both

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.