Did you know that you could talk yourself out of debt?
Yes, really you could talk your way out of debt.
The solution is called debt negotiation, debt settlement or debt arbitration. But whichever you call it, it’s basically the same thing. It’s where you contact your creditors and talk them into helping you get out of debt.
Sound too good to be true?
Does this sound just too good to be true – that you could just talk your creditors into helping you? Well, it is true but only under certain circumstances. For one thing it’s not worth trying unless you owe a good amount of money. And second, you should already be behind in your payments.
How it works
For the sake of an example let’s say you owe $5000 on a credit card and you haven’t been able to make a payment for the last three months. Before you contact the credit card provider you need to have a goal in mind. It could be to get a reduction in your interest rate, to ask for forbearance (where you make no payments for some period of time), a temporary reduction in your payments or to settle your debt for less than you owe (debt negotiation).
The first thing you will need to do is get through to a person that has the authority to work with you. In many cases this isn’t as easy as it might sound. The first customer representative you reach probably won’t have that authority. In fact, you may have to keep making phone calls and talking with people until you finally work your way through all the various levels to get the someone who has the authority to really help you.
As a general rule it’s easier to get a concession such as a reduction in your interest rate, forbearance or a temporary pause to your monthly payments then debt settlement. Why is this? It’s because the whole idea behind debt settlement is to pay that credit card company less than what you owe – maybe much less than you owe. As you might guess, credit card companies are pretty much opposed to doing this.
If your goal is debt settlement
If your goal is to negotiate a debt settlement, you will need to be further behind in your payments than three months – probably something around six months. The reason for this is that most credit card companies are loath to talk settlement unless you’re this far behind. Plus, after six months most of them would sell off your debt to a third party such as a collection agency. This means it’s important that you contact that lender sometime between when you haven’t made a payment for five months but it hasn’t quite yet been six months.
When you do finally reach a person that has the authority to help you be honest about your finances and explain them as clearly and comprehensively as possible. What you’re doing at this stage is building a case for settlement. You may also need to convince that person that if he or she fails to settle you will have to to file for bankruptcy. This is the old “half a loaf is better than none” deal where the credit card company understands it would be better to get a substantial chunk of what you owe than nothing at all.
What to ask for
Unfortunately there’s no hard and fast rule as to how much of your debt you should first offer to pay. If you have the necessary intestinal fortitude you might offer to pay 30% or 40% of your debt. You can just about figure that this offer will be refused. However, your customer rep will have to come back with a counter offer – after all this is called debt negotiation. Where you end up will depend largely on how good a negotiator you are and how much you owe. But if you are pretty good and if you do owe $5000, you might end up settling for 50%.
Get it in writing
Assuming that you are successful in talking your way into a settlement make sure you get it in writing. Also be prepared to pay for the settlement almost immediately. In fact, this can be one of your best bargaining chips – “settle with me today and I’ll send you the money by cashier’s check or wire transfer tomorrow.” Of course, this does mean you will need to have the necessary cash on hand. The Catch-22 here is that if you did have $5000 on hand you might not have to ask for any concessions let alone debt settlement. So where would the money come from? If you are fortunate you might be able to borrow it from a relative. Barring that you will need to get creative. For example, if you have a 401(k) or IRA you might be able to borrow the money from it. The best thing about this is that you will have to pay the money back with interest but you will be paying interest to yourself. And you will need to repay it within six months or it will be treated by the IRS as ordinary income and you will be taxed accordingly.
What can you do if you don’t have either a rich relation, a 401(k) or an IRA? You could get a second job and use the extra income to pay off your settlement. Our economy has rebounded to the point where there are a number of part-time jobs available. For example, we recently saw that both our local Best Buy and Staples stores were looking for help. While these jobs generally don’t pay more than $10 an hour you should be able to easily net $600 a month or more.
Does this sound just awful?
Make no mistake about it; DIY debt negotiation takes time, patience and steel nerves – as well as the cash to pay off any settlements you negotiate. Plus, it will seriously ding your credit score. This is why debt settlement should be low on your list of ways to deal with your debt.
Bankruptcy is worse
The one thing that can be said without argument about debt settlement is that it’s better than filing for bankruptcy. Yes, a chapter 7 bankruptcy would get rid of all or almost all of your unsecured debts such as medical debts, credit card debts and personal loans. But it comes at a very serious cost. For one thing, a bankruptcy will stay in your credit reports for either seven or 10 years and in your personal record forever. You could be turned down for a really great job 10 years from now because the prospective employer won’t hire anyone that has had a bankruptcy. It will probably be two to three years after your bankruptcy before you can get any new credit and when you do it will come with a very stiff interest rate.
This means that for many people a better option is credit counseling. There’s undoubtedly a nonprofit credit-counseling agency near you that either provides its services free or at very low cost. When you go to one of these agencies you will be assigned a debt counselor that will review all of your finances and help you develop a budget or plan for getting out of debt. He or she will probably also work with your creditors to get your interest rates or even your monthly payments reduced. If you’re really stuck in a black hole of debt your counselor will probably offer you what’s called a debt management plan or DMP. This is where you send the agency one payment a month and it then distributes the money to your various creditors. The benefit of this is probably fairly obvious – that you get all of those creditors off your back and would make just one payment a month versus the multiple payments you’re probably now making. However, like many things in life there are downsides to a DMP. For one thing, it will probably take you as many as five years to complete it. And second, all of your accounts will be closed and you will be required to give up your credit cards. Sadly enough a large percentage of people who sign up for DMPs never complete them and these are probably the reasons why.