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The Debt Adviser

Credit counseling vs. bankruptcy

Dear Debt Adviser,
How do you know what it the best solution to credit card debt? I am hearing bad things about bankruptcy and about credit counseling. We don't know which end is up? Help!!

Dear Pam,
The short answer is to stop charging right now! I do not know from your letter how much credit card debt you have, or your current income. Therefore, I do not know for sure if bankruptcy, credit counseling or something altogether different would work best for you to solve your current problem. We can, however, go over some options that may help you decide how best to address your credit card debt.

To begin with, before you consider any options, you need to know where you stand. This means you need to know:

  • How much income you have coming in each month;
  • What your expenses are; and
  • What your financial plans include for the short term (the next five years) and the long term.

These are basic questions that underpin most financial decisions, but ones which few people take the time to answer before plunging ahead. Now for the real work! Take a hard look at your spending and determine in what areas you can reduce expenses. Keep in mind that the sacrifices you make now will not last forever. Once your bills are paid, you can begin to spend money on cappuccinos or cable television again.

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Option 1: Pay off your debt yourself
Let's start with an option you did not mention. It's my favorite for a number of reasons, including cost and self-reliance. It may be possible for you to pay down your credit card debt yourself.

Begin by completing the exercise above to determine where you stand. Put the money you save by reducing expenses or maximizing income toward paying off your debt beginning with the account with the highest interest rate. Communicate with your creditors to let them know you are concerned about and committed to paying off your balances and request that your interest rates be lowered. The response from your creditors will be more favorable if your account is in good standing (no late payments) than if you have 30- to 60-day late payments. But it is only a phone call, and is worth the effort. In addition, some creditors offer hardship programs for persons who are having trouble making payments. As always, if you get an answer you don't like, ask to speak to a supervisor.

Keep track of the phone conversations; to whom you spoke, the agreement that was reached, etc. Get all concessions in interest charges, late fees or balance limits in writing.

Option 2: Credit counseling
A reputable credit counseling organization can offer you budgeting and debt management services and money management education. After meeting with a certified credit counselor, who will evaluate your current financial situation, you will be advised of your options. Your counselor most likely will recommend one of the following three things: Paying off the debt yourself; a debt management plan; or you will be referred to an outside agency or attorney for further assistance.

A debt management plan is a customized plan to pay off your debt in one to five years. The credit counseling agency works with your creditors on your behalf to have your interest rates lowered and fees reduced or eliminated. Creditors are often more willing to reduce interest rates and make other concessions when a consumer is enrolled in a debt management plan because it is a structured plan developed by an experienced credit counselor. On the plan, you would make one agreed upon payment to the credit counseling agency, which then pays your creditors.

To avoid any of the bad things you may have heard about credit counseling make sure you choose a nonprofit agency that spends at least 60 minutes discussing your situation and discloses to you all fees and payments required of you before you sign an agreement. Insist on getting a spending plan or budget as part of the process. Any agency that will not provide such a plan is not interested in you; it is interested only in fees. Don't do business with them, they can complicate your life more than you can imagine!

Option 3: Bankruptcy
I placed this option last because you will want to explore all other options before choosing bankruptcy. A Chapter 7 personal bankruptcy remains on your credit report for 10 years and can make it more expensive for you to obtain credit, insurance, security clearances, some licenses, gain employment or even rent an apartment. In our society, credit is becoming an increasingly pervasive feature of daily life and opportunity. To damage it unwittingly can cause heartache for years to come.

You sound like a take-care-of-yourself adult. Having to declare bankruptcy can also be seen as a real failure to make it on your own. Still, it may be your only option, without which you wouldn't have the chance to start over. All in all, it's an action you want to pursue only with your eyes open wide and with competent counsel advising you.

I hope I have given you enough information to begin researching for yourself the best way to pay down your credit card debt. Whichever option you choose, stop charging today! Good luck!

The Debt Adviser, Steve Bucci, is the president of Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Southern New England. Visit CCCS for additional debt advice or click here to ask a debt question.

-- Updated: March 19, 2004
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See Also
Debt help that isn't: Some credit counselors help themselves
Tips for choosing a credit counselor
Bankrate's Guide to Managing Credit
Financial advice glossary
More Debt Adviser stories


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