5-step emergency plan for dealing with debt

Intense panic, possibly accompanied by stifled screams and helpless flailing, is a monthly ritual for people drowning in debt.

And there are a lot of them. The Federal Reserve announced that as of June 2007, Americans are carrying $904 billion in revolving debt, up from $879 billion at the end of 2006. That does not include mortgages and loans for such things as cars, mobile homes, education or boats, trailers or vacations.

But, it’s never too late to turn things around.

First and foremost, be committed, says Howard Dvorkin, founder of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services Inc., and author of “Credit Hell: How To Dig Out Of Debt.”

“People have to want to get out of debt. They aren’t going to get out of debt just to get out of debt, they have to want it.”

Here’s an emergency plan to help you do just that.

Emergency plan to get out of debt
  1. Establish your bearings
  2. Chart your path
  3. Put the plan into action — the dreaded ‘B’ word
  4. Pay your bills
  5. Add stability to your credit file

1. Establish your bearings
Once you’re absolutely, unconditionally prepared to do whatever it takes to pull your credit rating out of a nose dive; you’re ready for stage one.

“Take a step back and evaluate the situation,” advises Emily Davidson, corporate communications director for Credit.com. “It’s very common for people to skip over this and go straight into crisis mode. It’s really difficult for people to face the problems that they might be having.”

The best way to assess the condition of your finances is by pulling your credit reports. This can be accomplished three ways.

Get your credit report
  1. Go to annualcreditreport.com, which is the only authorized source for consumers to access their annual credit report online for free.
  2. Call (877) 322-8228.
  3. Complete the form on the back of the Annual Credit Report Request brochure, and mail it to: Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105283, Atlanta, GA, 30348-5283.

You are entitled to one free credit report a year from each credit bureau — Equifax, TransUnion and Experian. As long as the reports are ordered from the centralized agency, they can be ordered all at once or at different times of the year.

Learn how to read your report. It can be illuminating. According to Dvorkin, “People tend to underestimate rather than overestimate — probably about 20 percent lower than what they actually owe. The average debt is $9,000, 20 percent of $9,000 is $1,800 — so that is a pretty significant fluctuation for most of us.”

2. Chart your path

How far behind in your payments you are can drastically alter your plan of action. “If you’re just in the beginning of having this financial crisis and beginning to fall behind, it’s really best to work on your own to try to recover,” Davidson says.

On the other hand, your options are going to be different with one or two 120-day late payments on your credit report.

“If you let something go all the way to a charge off — where it’s placed with a collection agency — that will be seriously negative for the full seven years. It is known as ‘seriously derogatory,'” says Maxine Sweet, vice president of public education for Experian and author of the consumer credit advice column Ask Max.

A severely damaged report does buy you some wiggle room.

“You can negotiate with creditors, or work with a debt negotiation company or debt counseling company,” Davidson explains. “The potential downside is that there could be some damage associated with those programs — as far as how the lenders chose to report your repayments. But if you’re already at that stage, there’s not a whole lot that can happen.”

Obviously, the hope is that you’ve caught yourself before that point. Even if you haven’t, you will be able to recover with some work and the passage of time.

“People have a lot of options,” Dvorkin says. “Unfortunately, they don’t realize all their options. Bankruptcy isn’t the first option, it’s the last option. The first is to juggle the household budget.”

3. Put the plan into action — the dreaded ‘B’ word

Call it a budget, spending plan or resource allocation; it all comes down to the same thing: “Stop spending,” says Sweet. “You can’t say I’m in over my head and keep living the same lifestyle. You have got to figure out what you can cut out of your life.”

This is the mantra of credit experts. “Stop spending, use cash instead of a credit card,” Dvorkin affirms. “Most people’s budgets are 15 (percent) to 20 percent fat. You don’t need a $4 latte at Starbucks every day. People can do without certain things; do you need 200 satellite channels? Can you get away with 100?”

Wondering where you can start slashing? Here are a few suggestions:

Cable and internet service — “In most situations, that’s $100 per month and for most people those are among the last things they would think of turning off,” says Davidson.

Make your coffee at home — Gourmet coffee drinks are the new daily habit, right up there with cigarettes and alcohol on the list of money-draining vices.

Check your car insurance — “Adjusting your deductibles or coverage on your insurance” can save money, Dvorkin says.

Get rid of the gym membership and cut out the car washes. Remember, these are emergency circumstances. Research ways to exercise for free.

Skip the manicures and pedicures.

The list could go on and on — carpooling, coupons, cutting out dry cleaning.

“You’ve got to make the tough calls, even on the little things,” Sweet says. “And people say, ‘Oh those are just little things, I have big debts.’ Well you’ve got to start somewhere, you have to cut out the big things but you have to cut out the little things — they add up.

If you look at your monthly spending and just don’t see anything that can be cut out, you may need to get professional help.

“Go to a reputable credit counseling service and get help with budgeting,” Sweet recommends. “They’ll do an evaluation to see if they can even help you. If you’re so far gone that you don’t even have enough income to start paying off your creditors, they’ll tell you that you’re beyond their help and may have to file for bankruptcy.”

Besides decreasing spending, another option would be increasing your income. “Consider getting a second job,” Sweet advises.

4. Pay your bills

So, your budget is whippet-lean, yet there’s still not enough money to stretch across all your obligations? You do have options.

“If you’re unable to pay small bills, it’s a good idea to contact the business to see if you can work out an agreement,” Davidson advises.

In the case of an extreme emergency, “If it’s a utility bill, or something that doesn’t report to the credit bureaus, it’s sometimes OK to skip it — if it’s a one-time situation where you’re in a financial crisis — if you have to in order to pay bills that are reported to the credit bureaus — you can avoid damage,” she says.

After paying your rent or mortgage, the loan or credit card with the highest interest rate comes first, while paying the minimum on the rest of your debts.

“By far the most expensive kind of debt you can have is payday loan debt,” Davidson says. “Consumers should really do anything they can to pay that off first.”

Similarly, collection accounts should hold high priority. Unpaid collections are worse than paid collections. You can negotiate a payoff settlement that reduces your bill, and when you do, demand that all derogatory remarks be removed from your credit report or at least reported as paid in full. Be sure to get agreements in writing before sending off your payment.

Be proactive when you’re struggling with payments. Call your creditors and negotiate to keep your accounts current and from being reported as delinquent or “bad debt.” You can ask for reduced monthly payments, or even change due dates to balance out your monthly bills.

“Most lenders want to help you find a solution,” says Davidson.

The same strategy can be used for fixed-loan payments. Remember, though, that this is a short-term strategy. You’ll pay more interest to extend the repayment schedule, but it allows you to stay current and save your credit rating. Use the extra money to pay off debts one at a time, gradually increasing payments to other debts.

You may be surprised at the help that is available. “Obviously, with student loans there are forbearance programs, there are mortgage programs for people who are having hardships,” Davidson says. The important thing is to work with your creditors throughout your struggle.

When you just can’t even come close to paying your debts, declaring bankruptcy is an option. The long and costly process will, if successfully completed, discharge most of your debts and let you build up your credit again.

“Chapter 7 stays on your credit for 10 years and Chapter 13 for seven years. It’s a long, long time of impact,” says Sweet. Generally, most people are surprised at how easy it is to regain their credit in the aftermath, but it can be an uphill battle.

5. Add stability to your credit file

If you have really bad credit — perhaps even filed bankruptcy — don’t let your credit status go dormant. “The faster you begin to re-establish good credit, where you pay on time, every time,” says Craig Watts, public affairs manager at Fair Isaac Corp., “the faster you’ll improve your credit score.”

“After you’ve gotten out of the real danger zone, check your credit reports,” Davidson says. “See what’s happened, don’t just assume that you destroyed your credit. Once you do that, you’ll have a better idea of how you can continue your recovery.”

“For example,” she continues, “if you’ve filed for bankruptcy, you can see exactly what your credit score is and then evaluate what kind of products you can apply for that will help you re-establish your credit.”

A secured credit card is one option for consumers seeking to build a solid credit history. One caveat — make sure your credit grantor reports to the credit bureaus. Not all do.

Lastly, open a savings account at your bank. This shows creditors that you are working to save and that you have reserves to repay debts.