Settling your debts used to be a less than reputable practice but has recently gained prominence. It is basically where you hire a debt relief company to negotiate with the creditors on your behalf. The goal is to get them to agree to settlements where you make lump sum payments for a portion of your debts (this should much less than your total balances). In return the creditor agrees to forgive the rest of the debts.
Avoid outrageous upfront fees. A small initial fee (up to $50 or, in rare cases, as much as $100 if you have a lot of debt or high income) is normal, but large upfront fees are out of line. If any agency asks for a fee (or donation) make sure that you know what it will cover, and get it in writing. Find out if you'll have to pay any additional fees to start the program. Don't get tricked into paying one "consultation fee," and then an "application fee" or "an enrollment fee." If you're truly unable to pay, look for an agency that is willing to waive the fee or spread it out (without charging additional fees for doing so).
Throughout all the years I carried this debt around with me, I never wanted to be in debt. But it wasn’t until I met the three criteria above that I was able to do something about it. First, I had to stop living in denial, telling myself my debt “wasn’t that bad.” I needed a reality check and to stare down exactly how much debt I had and what it would take to get out.
There are four other popular options that you could discuss with your creditors. The first is to have your interest rates reduced. If you have high interest debts of, say, 15% or higher and could get them reduced to maybe 12%, you would end up with much lower monthly payments, which could make it possible for you to meet your obligations. A second option worth discussing would be a timeout period of two or three months during which you would no longer be required to make any payments. This would give you time to get your finances reorganized and to save money that might allow you to catch up on your payments. A third possibility would be to have some or all of your credit card debts converted into repayment programs. You would likely be required to give up your credit cards but in turn you would have fixed payments for a fixed amount of time after which you would be completely debt-free.
Late fees and other penalties. If you are not actively paying down your debt, the lender will assess late fees and raise the interest rate so that your debt actually grows. Again, this applies specifically to debt settlement, but could happen with late payments in either a debt management program or debt consolidation loan. Be aware that not making at least minimum payments on your debt each month is going to cost you.
Second, there's no guarantee that creditors will accept a partial payment. They may refuse any terms that a bankruptcy alternative proposes, leaving you potentially in worse shape than when you began. Finally, late fees and interest accrue on unpaid balances. That's money you'd have to pay, on top of any exorbitant fees the credit agency itself may be charging.
This isn't good news for the millions of American consumers who struggle with mounting debts and less-than-perfect credit scores. Since carrying long-term debts increases your chances of missing a payment, running up excessive balances or damaging your credit in either ways, debt consolidation lenders don't have a very big pool of potential applicants at their disposal. Unless you've been fortunate enough to maintain a stellar credit score during your debt struggles, you might have to look elsewhere for help.
Asking for help with debt can be difficult. Those in trouble may be hesitant to let others know, but Kalkowski says there should be no shame in reaching out for a lifeline if finances become unmanageable. "There are a lot of Americans in this sinking boat," she says. Rather than going it alone, use the resources available to keep your finances afloat.
Debt settlement. Debt settlement programs typically are offered by for-profit companies, and involve them negotiating with your creditors to allow you to pay a "settlement" to resolve your debt — a lump sum that is less than the full amount that you owe. To make that lump sum payment, the program asks that you set aside a specific amount of money every month in savings. Debt settlement companies usually ask that you transfer this amount every month into an escrow-like account to accumulate enough savings to pay off any settlement that is eventually reached. Further, these programs often encourage or instruct their clients to stop making any monthly payments to their creditors.
Checking your credit report for inaccuracies is an important step in your journey to reduce your debt. Remedy: You are allowed a free credit report from each of the major credit reporting bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Split them up, one every four months. Check them closely for incorrect delinquencies and/or balances that hurt your credit score and could make a difference in your ability to buy a house or car, or obtain more credit.
Instead of diving into debt settlement, a better option might be to talk to a nonprofit credit counselor. Credit counseling organizations can help you better understand tactics for managing and reducing your debt, including creating and following a budget. Credit counseling may not have the negative impact of debt settlement (though if you choose a Debt Management Plan, it could appear on your credit report).
Debt settlement companies typically ask you to stop paying your creditors and instead put the money in an account they control. Each creditor is approached as the money accumulates in your account and you fall further and further behind on payments. Fear of getting nothing at all may motivate the creditor to accept a smaller lump-sum offer and agree not to pursue you for the rest.
You need to start off with a plan so you know just how much debt you have and your ability to pay them off. Also, it will provide you with a black and white scenario of your financial standing. The easiest way to do this is by creating a spreadsheet. If you don’t already have a spreadsheet on your computer you could use the free one that comes with Google Docs. You will want to create four columns – one for the name of your creditor, one for the amount owed, a third for your minimum payment (if applicable) and a fourth for the payment due date. Fill out these columns and you will have a good picture of your debt, which is the first important step in getting it under control.