How to Escape the Debt Hole

DALLAS _ The holidays are over, but for many consumers, the headaches are just beginning as the bills start to pile up.

Tackle them now, because many experts say 2009 will be a tough year, especially for those who are debt-laden.

If you find yourself deep in debt, there are several options you can pursue.

One way is to handle the situation on your own. This requires you to have a harsh reality check and total up all your debts.

Create a summary sheet that lists the creditor, monthly payment, balance, interest rate and credit limit for each. List the status of each account, whether any bills are past due, and verify the payment due dates.

“This debt summary may be overwhelming, so prioritize which bills to pay first,” said Bill Hardekopf, chief executive of, a credit card information Web site.

If you can’t pay all of your monthly bills, first pay the bills that are necessary for health, shelter, food and basic transportation. Then pay the secured debts such as your car loan.

Payments on unsecured loans, such as most credit cards, should come last.

Contact your creditors to try to negotiate lower rates.

If you’re in danger of missing a payment, contact your creditors before you fall behind. Your card issuer may be able to work out a payment plan, lower your rate or lower your monthly payment.

Another option is to seek professional credit counseling. Reputable credit counseling organizations employ people who are trained and certified in budgeting and debt management.

Part of credit counseling may include a debt management plan, or DMP. In a DMP, you deposit money each month with a credit counseling organization. The organization uses these deposits to pay your debts according to a payment schedule it has worked out with you and your creditors.

“In a DMP, you pay 100 percent of the principal,” said Todd Mark, vice psident of education at Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Dallas. “The plan is to help you pay off your debt in full.”

His agency charges a one-time setup fee of $30, with monthly fees ranging from $12 to $24, “depending on the number of creditors we’d be sending money to.”

Get a detailed price quote in writing, and ask specifically whether all fees are covered. If you can’t afford the fees, ask if the credit counseling firm will waive or reduce them.

Look for an organization that offers a range of services, and counselors who are trained and certified, advises the Federal Trade Commission.

“Avoid organizations that push a debt management plan as your only option before they spend a significant amount of time analyzing your financial situation,” the FTC said. “DMPs are not for everyone.”

Undergoing credit counseling shouldn’t hurt your credit score, according to Fair Isaac Corp., which created the widely used FICO score.

“However, the actions you take based on the recommendations of a credit counselor may sometimes affect your score,” the company said.

You could also try taking out one loan to pay off all your debts. Then you make one payment a month to pay off the loan, which typically carries a lower interest rate.

“The consolidation of debt is just the first step of a two-step process,” said Greg McBride, senior financial analyst at, a personal finance Web site. “Without the all-important follow-through of actually stepping up repayments of the debt, a consolidation does nothing more than just move money around.”

So make extra payments each month to pay the loan off sooner.

If you don’t have anything, such as home equity, to secure the loan, you may not get as low an interest rate. If you have bad credit, you may be denied altogether.

If you use your equity as collateral, you’d be exchanging unsecured debt for secured debt, with your home on the line.

“In this volatile economy, you should avoid borrowing against your home equity to consolidate debt,” said Ted Beck, psident and chief executive of the National Endowment for Financial Education. “Your home could potentially devalue as a result of the soft housing market.”

If you get a consolidation loan, change your spending habits, or else you’ll be in a deeper hole than you were before.

As a last resort, you can consider debt settlement, which typically involves a company negotiating a settlement with a client’s creditors for a portion of the debt.

Debt settlement companies help consumers by lowering the amount they owe and reducing the time it takes to repay their debts, said Jack Craven, psident of Debt Settlement USA in Scottsdale, Ariz.

He said his company settles clients’ debts for an average 40 to 60 percent of their outstanding balances.

One note of caution: Paying less than the amount owed probably will be reported to the credit bureaus as some version of “not paid as agreed, which likely will lower the person’s FICO score,” said Craig Watts, spokesman for Fair Isaac.

“The key variables are how the account change is reported to the credit bureau and what other information is on the person’s credit report when their FICO score is next calculated,” he said.

Demand to know in advance all fees a debt settlement company will charge for their services, and get this in writing.

Debt settlement companies typically charge 15 percent or more of a consumer’s unsecured debt, said Craven. “We charge a flat fee of 14 percent of the unsecured balance, paid over 11 months,” he said.

The debt settlement industry has drawn the attention of state and federal officials in recent years, with state attorneys general bringing several enforcement actions against companies. The FTC also has accused some debt settlement companies of deceptive marketing practices.

Craven said he is trying to raise industry standards and urges federal oversight. “There are a lot of bad actors in this industry,” he said.

Before entering a settlement program, make sure you understand what’s involved.

Sara Gottovi, an attorney at the FTC, said prospective customers need to know “how long it’s going to take to assist them in resolving their debt, how much they will be charged, the impact on their credit score and the tax consequences that will arise by having your debt forgiven.”

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.