Dealing with debt

Are you having trouble paying your bills? Are you getting notices from creditors? Are your accounts being turned over to debt collectors? Are you worried about losing your home or your car?

You're not alone. Many people face financial crises at some time in their lives. Whether the crisis is caused by personal or family illness, the loss of a job, or simple overspending, it can seem overwhelming. But it often can be overcome, and your financial situation doesn't have to go from bad to worse.

If you or someone you know is in financial hot water, consider these options: realistic budgeting, credit counseling from a reputable organization, debt consolidation or bankruptcy.

How do you know which option will work best for you? It depends on your level of debt, your level of discipline, and your prospects for the future.

Developing a Budget

The first step toward taking control of your financial situation is to do a realistic assessment of how much money comes in and how much money you spend. Start by listing your income from all sources. Then, list your "fixed" expenses — those that are the same each month — such as your mortgage payments or your rent, car payments or insurance premiums. Next, list the expenses that vary, such as entertainment, recreation or clothing.

Writing down all your expenses — even those that seem insignificant — is a helpful way to track your spending patterns. It helps identify the expenses that are necessary and helps you to prioritize the rest. The goal is to make sure you can make ends meet on the basics: housing, food, health care, insurance and education.

Your public library has information about budgeting and money management techniques. Low-cost budget counseling services that can help you analyze your income and expenses and develop a budget and spending plan also are available in most communities. Check your Yellow Pages or contact your local bank or consumer protection office for information about them. In addition, many universities, military bases, credit unions and housing authorities operate nonprofit financial counseling programs.

{bold} Contacting Your Creditors

Contact your creditors immediately if you are having trouble making ends meet. Tell them why it's difficult for you, and try to work out a modified payment plan that reduces your payments to a more manageable level. Don't wait until your accounts have been turned over to a debt collector. At that point, the creditors have given up on you.

{bold} Dealing with Debt Collectors

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act is the federal law that dictates how and when a debt collector may contact you. A debt collector may not call you before 8 a.m., after 9 p.m. or at work if the collector knows that your employer doesn't approve of the calls. Collectors may not harass you, make false statements or use unfair practices when they try to collect a debt. Debt collectors must honor a written request from you to stop further contact.

Credit Counseling

If you aren't disciplined enough to create a workable budget and stick to it, you can't work out a repayment plan with your creditors, or you can't keep track of mounting bills, consider contacting a credit counseling service.

Your creditors may be willing to accept reduced payments if you enter into a debt repayment plan with a reputable organization. In these plans, you deposit money each month with the credit counseling service. Your deposits are used to pay your creditors according to a payment schedule developed by the counselor. As part of the repayment plan, you may have to agree not to apply for — or use — any additional credit while you're participating in the program.

A successful repayment plan requires you to make regular payments and could take 48 months or longer to complete. Ask the credit counseling service for an estimate of the time it will take you to complete the plan. Some credit counseling services charge little or nothing for managing the plan; others charge a monthly fee that could add up to a significant charge over time. Some credit counseling services are funded, in part, by contributions from creditors.

Although a debt repayment plan can eliminate much of the stress that comes from dealing with creditors and overdue bills, it does not mean you can forget about your debts. And debt repayment plan does not erase your negative credit history. Accurate information about your accounts can stay on your credit report for up to seven years.

In addition, your creditors will continue to report information about accounts that are handled through a debt repayment plan. For example, creditors may report that an account is in financial counseling, that payments have been late or missed, or that there are write-offs or other concessions. A demonstrated pattern of timely payments, however, will help you get credit in the future.

Auto and Home Loans

Debt repayment plans usually cover unsecured debt. Your auto and home loan, which are considered secured debt, may not be included. You must continue to make payments to these creditors directly.

Most automobile financing agreements allow a creditor to repossess your car any time you're in default. No notice is required. If your car is repossessed, you may have to pay the full balance due on the loan, as well as towing and storage costs, to get it back. If you can't do this, the creditor may sell the car. If you see default approaching, you may be better off selling the car yourself and paying off the debt: You would avoid the added costs of repossession and a negative entry on your credit report.

If you fall behind on your mortgage, contact your lender immediately to avoid foreclosure. Most lenders are willing to work with you if they believe you're acting in good faith and the situation is temporary. Some lenders may reduce or suspend your payments for a short time. When you resume regular payments, though, you may have to pay an additional amount toward the past due total. Other lenders may agree to change the terms of the mortgage by extending the repayment period to reduce the monthly debt. Ask whether additional fees would be assessed for these changes, and calculate how much they total in the long run.

If you and your lender cannot work out a plan, contact a housing counseling agency. Call the local office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development or the housing authority in your state, city or county for help in finding a housing counseling agency near you.

Debt Consolidation

You may be able to lower your cost of credit by consolidating your debt through a second mortgage or a home equity line of credit. However, these loans require your home as collateral. If you can't make the payments, you could lose your home.

The costs of these consolidation loans can add up. In addition to interest on the loan, you pay "points." Typically, one point is equal to 1 percent of the amount you borrow. Still, these loans may provide certain tax advantages.

Next Week:

The basics about bankruptcy

Zall, Bureaucratus columnist and a retired federal employee, is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md. He specializes in taxes, investing, business and government workplace issues. He is a certified internal auditor and a registered investment adviser. He can be reached at milt.zall@verizon.net.

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