Sadly, like many Americans you may be suffering from an amount of debt that seems insurmountable. This creates an emotional crisis, wreaks havoc on your relationships, work performance, financial security and savings/retirement. Rather than continuing to lament the situation, let’s look at workable solutions to this debt problem. Positive resolutions are available to those that sincerely desire to have a better financial life.
Basically, Americans have the following choices from which debt can be overcome:
- Change how they prioritize their spending
- Engage a credit counseling firm
- Engage in a debt negotiation process
- Do nothing and declare bankruptcy.
How you decide which option to choose should not be made by default. You need perspective and options from financial mentors that can see your big picture. Sandy Botkin, noted tax specialist and author, says that bankruptcy can be avoided by 85 percent of filers if they just had another $300 per month. In other words, often there are better choices to be made, if only we can know what ALL the choices are before we make a choice!
Let me emphasize that whatever choice you make to get out of debt, it must first and foremost always include number 1 from the list above. Before you do anything else, you must first change how you prioritize your spending. What this means is that you must create a spending plan and then track your spending according to that plan. When you create a spending plan, which includes how much you “spend” on debt every month, you can finally see the actual difference between your debt demand and your ability to pay that debt. Often you will find that extra $300 you didn’t know you had that can keep you from declaring bankruptcy and help you pay down your debt.
Choice number 2 and 4 in the list above can have some effect on debt, but are far less meaningful in the big picture view of things. Number 2, engaging a credit counseling firm, only reduces your interest rates on bank credit cards from banks with which the credit counseling firm has a relationship. Number 4, declaring bankruptcy, is self-explanatory. However, after you have implemented number 1 and can see that you have more debt than a spending plan and income can take care of, number 3, debt negotiation, is often the best choice to solve this insurmountable problem.
Following is an itemized outline of the process you can follow when negotiating debt*. You can hire a law firm or do it on your own. It is cost efficient to do it yourself and you should have the expectation of getting discounts in the range of 60 to 75 percent. Thus, a loan balance of $5,000 could be generally discounted by $3,000 to $3,750 using a reasonable debt negotiation process.
- When it is established that you can no longer pay your debts, the first thing you should do is be honest about this with whoever has need to ask about your debt. Stick to the facts, offering no more and no less. For example, you could say something like: “I’ve been laid off; I can’t get work; I don’t have any money; we’ve had major bills, etc.” Whatever this sad story may be, write it down, keep it factual, keep it simple and keep on point. Don’t elaborate or go into detail about your plight in any way, ever. Just stay on point! Remember, the banks have entire departments that do nothing but negotiate settlement of debt. It takes time, like three to four years before your credit is repaired. It’s not about right and wrong – it’s simply the system. You are in a system that is designed to protect the bank so you need to stick with the facts.
- Stop paying monthly. When the calls come in, don’t negotiate a partial payment, don’t give them a lump sum, don’t promise to do anything. Time is on your side. If you do pay money at this time, it is completely wasted. Debt collectors will not listen until you stop paying all money for months.
- To make the banks negotiate with you, you have to stop paying them, and are patient. This of course will prompt collection calls. Record the calls as they come in. Note the frequency, time of the call, the name of the person calling, and what was said. Keep a journal; you can abbreviate such as LM for “left message,” etc. Keep a separate record on each debt. Write down the original balance at the time you stopped paying. Your creditors will add interest, attorney fees, late fees, and other expenses, but to be the most successful you must know the original balance owed – this is the number from which you will negotiate. Creditors will use all kinds of numbers and they could very well double the original amount owed within a year of non-payment. When a debt is settled, use the amount paid divided by the original balance to determine the percent to be settled.
Example: A credit card has an original balance of $4,000 but after six months, creditors have added interest and penalties, which comes to a new balance of $4,897. After some time and negotiations, everyone settles on 25 cents on the dollar, which means you would pay $1,000 to eliminate this debt. Some creditors are willing to accept much less, especially with the economy in upheaval. Also, of interest, the time frame to negotiate and settle was once two to three years. It can now be as short as three to six months if you have reserves to negotiate with.
- Save up money with which to negotiate. Put together 25 cents on the dollar with which you can settle, then call creditors and renegotiate the debt with what you have put away for this purpose. Give them a good reason that you wish to give them money. Settle on 23 cent on the dollar and pay them. Make sure you get an agreement that states: “paid as agreed.” When “paid as agreed” shows up on your credit report you can then work on getting that removed through a credit repair company. We have seen some remarkable settlement amongst our Money Mastery coaching clients using this strategy. The reason it’s important to have this money with which to negotiate is because if a creditor does not get any money, they will charge your obligation off as “bad debt.” This stays on your credit report for many years. Keep in mind that if you have money set aside to try to negotiate debt payoff, your creditors have every right to get a judgment against you for that money. Any account with your Social Security number attached to it is fair game. If you have your children’s accounts attached to your Social Security number, these are also available to be taken out by creditors. Thus, be sure to decide in advance where and with whom you will keep the cash you are saving for settlement purposes.
- Make sure you keep a journal. Keep a journal entry of what they say, who you spoke with, phone numbers, etc. Make sure that you then attach the account number to the entry and also record whose name is on the debt. For example, if it is a joint account with both partners, include both names. If it is only one or the other partner, be sure to record only the name of the person who is on the account to the entry. Be very specific in the entry about who owed the money so when negotiating, the correct person is giving authorization to discuss and settle.
- At some point, there’s going to be a settlement offered so get ready to make deals that work for you, not what they offer initially. Creditors will start at 110 cents on the dollar. This means with penalties and interest the totaled owed exceeds the original balance of debt. Your story is still the same; “I have no money”. Then with time, they’ll go down to say 80 cents on the dollar, then 60, 50 and so forth. When they get down to the 40 or 50 cents on the dollar is a good time to have your money available and make them a 25 percent (or 25 cents on the dollar of the original balance) offer, or turn it over to a third party negotiator.
- Negotiation for multiple accounts at one time is acceptable. When you have multiple accounts with one creditor, occasionally they will be combined and offer to negotiate all of them at once – this is fine. If they don’t, just settle one at a time.
- When one debt is settled, it will show up on your credit report in about 90 days. The code towards the right side of the credit report should say “paid as agreed”. As multiple creditors get settled and the report shows more and more “paid as agreed,” existing creditors become easier to work with as they see they might be able to get money also.
- Keep in mind the collector’s time frame to settle. When a creditor gives the debt account to a collection agency, the agency usually has three months to get something done. They can renew the contract with the creditor by demonstrating progress. If they show a journal entry that they talked to you occasionally and maybe received some money in payment, this helps the account stay with this particular collection agency
- When you have money to settle one creditor, but not two, do the following: You can stall for three to six months by paying some money. Even a small amount like $25 really helps them to continue to work with you. This money seems to keep the existing collector in place, giving you time to put your money together enough to settle another. So, if you can’t settle for lack of money, but you wish to keep the same collection agent, pay them $25 every six months. Many times the collection agent will be nice and you will want to keep them on your case. Use this strategy to keep them around instead of getting an inconsiderate person.
- Being selective about which debts to negotiate can cause big problems. Your creditors will have knowledge through your credit report and may not allow you to discount the balance owed. For example, if you are an employee of a bank or credit union, they might fire you when you negotiate the balance owed to them. So, keep that debt current and pay it off at the end after all the other debts have been settled. The collection folks will ask you why you are not negotiating with all the creditors. They will really pry into this. This is hard to overcome with a collector.
- Get a third party person involved to do your talking, so that you don’t have to give them all your personal details. Creditors will want to ask how much money you make, contact family members for information, and see how much cash reserves you have in your 401(k) and other investments and savings. So, to avoid all that, you may want to consider hiring a third party. Give the third party permission to talk to the respective bank, access to your journal entries, the creditor’s name, person you are dealing with, original balance owed, account number, your Social Security number, whose name the account is in (either joint or single) and how much money you have saved to settle with.
- After all the debts have been negotiated and paid, restore your credit.
This is the last step. The agreement from each creditor stating “paid as agreed” is the key to credit restoration. It demonstrates that both parties agreed to settlement. This shows that it was not a charge off or a bankruptcy, and can be removed.
Debt negotiation is a very emotional experience. It will help to remember that to the creditors you are part of a big system that is just a game. Furthermore, all the creditors: MBNA, Chase, City Corp., American Express, Bank of America, MasterCard, Visa, credit union debts, lines of credit, even medical debts, all have negotiated with debtors to settle debt. Debt negotiation is nothing more than an expected cost of doing business. Learn the rules and get all this debt behind you.
*The authors of this article recognize that there are many details and options of the process not elaborated here. Therefore it is recommended that you seek further advice from experts other than your lender, family or friends.
For more information on the subject of overcoming debt and assistance with debt negotiation, call Money Mastery: (800) 292-1099.