How to get rid of debt without paying

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Outstanding debt is higher than ever. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports that household debt in the United States has now reached its highest-ever total: more than $14 trillion.

Regardless of the debt you’re suffering from, you might not see an end in sight. Is there a chance you can get out of debt without paying?

The answer is maybe, depending on a number of factors. Here are some ways you can explore getting out of debt that don’t include paying it.

How you can get out of debt without paying

Debt might feel homogeneous, but each type is different — so your options will depend on which type you’ve accrued. Before you stop paying, make sure you know the limitations and the long-term ramifications of doing so.

How to get out of student loan debt without paying

There are a few different options for getting out of student loan payments. Your loan, job status and sometimes the school you attended all determine what you’re eligible for.

  • Income-driven repayment plans: These revise your monthly payment to 10 to 20 percent of your income for the next 20 or 25 years (depending on the plan). After that, the remaining loan balance is forgiven.
  • Public Service Loan Forgiveness: Available for those who work in the public sector, like employees at the federal, state and local level, and for those who work for a nonprofit organization. After you’ve made 120 qualifying payments while working full time for a qualifying employer, the rest of your Direct Loans will be forgiven.
  • Teacher Loan Forgiveness: Open to teachers who work five consecutive years at a low-income elementary or secondary school and to those who work at an educational service agency. You might qualify for forgiveness of up to $17,500 of your Direct Loans or Stafford Loans.
  • Perkins Loan Cancellation: Teachers, firefighters, law enforcement officers and others are eligible for Perkins Loan cancellation or discharge. Cancellation can happen over the course of five years, while discharge could happen in the event of bankruptcy, death or disability.
  • Closed school discharge: If your school closed while you were attending (or soon after you withdrew), you may qualify to have your federal student loans discharged.
  • Discharge options: You could get your loans discharged in the event of death, permanent disability or — very rarely — bankruptcy.

For most options, you’ll need to make qualifying, timely payments each month. However, even then, not everyone qualifies or receives forgiveness. For instance, less than 1 percent of Public Service Loan Forgiveness applicants were approved and considered eligible.

You can’t have a defaulted loan forgiven, but defaulted loans may qualify for discharge, depending on the loan and the program.

How to get out of credit card debt without paying

If you have more credit card debt than you can handle, there are a few steps you can take; however, you may want to consider the repercussions.

If you stop paying your credit card bill, it gets turned into collections and your credit score tanks. But there’s a statute of limitations for how long creditors can sue you for outstanding credit card debt, which varies from three to 10 years in most states. You could skip payments, but you might be liable for them later. Even at that point, if you are sued for outstanding payment, you most likely wouldn’t win the case.

Another route is debt settlement, which is when you settle your debt with the current lender (or collection agency, if it’s reached that point) for less than what you owe. You may not be responsible for your entire credit card debt, but you’d still pay some of it.

How to get out of debt through bankruptcy

Bankruptcy should only be considered if you don’t have any other options. Filing for bankruptcy may sound like you’re starting over, but depending on the route you go, you may still be on the hook for some of your outstanding debt.

In a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing, some of your assets are sold off to pay back debt, meaning you could lose your home and personal property. A few months after filing, your remaining debt will be discharged — although Chapter 7 typically won’t cover things like student loan debt or child support.

In a Chapter 13 filing, you get set up on a court-ordered repayment plan. Any remaining debt after a certain time has passed, like five years, might be discharged. This process means you’ll spend even longer paying off your debt, and you’ll also have a bankruptcy filing on your credit report.

Depending on the type of bankruptcy you file, a bankruptcy filing could stay on your credit report for up to 10 years, which is why it’s important to carefully weigh your options and your outstanding debt. Debt collectors can’t attempt to collect a debt that was discharged in bankruptcy, and they can’t continue collection activity while the bankruptcy case is pending — but the filing itself will have long-term effects on your financial health.

Why not paying off debt doesn’t work

Your credit report is a vital part of your financial well-being. Late or missed payments, defaults, collections and bankruptcies not only crush your credit score, but can also hurt your chances of taking out a loan or getting approved for a credit card.

Not paying your bills also puts you in a dangerous position with lenders. Avoiding payment means that creditors can sue you for unpaid bills. In some states, you could get your wages garnished or have your assets seized. Even if you aren’t making the payments directly, you’re still paying your outstanding debt.

Alternatives to bankruptcy

If you have the chance to avoid bankruptcy, you should take it. Here are some alternatives to consider.

  1. Supplement your income: Whatever you need to do to start paying off your debt, do it now. Ask for a raise at work or move to a higher-paying job, if you can. Get a side-hustle. Start to sell valuable things, like furniture or expensive jewelry, to cover the outstanding debt.
  2. Ask for assistance: Contact your lenders and creditors and ask about lowering your monthly payment, interest rate or both. For student loans, you might qualify for temporary relief with forbearance or deferment. For other types of debt, see what your lender or credit card issuer offers for hardship assistance. If you have the means, see if friends and family will help you.
  3. Take out a debt consolidation loan: If you have many different types of debt, look into consolidation options. Taking out a debt consolidation loan is a way to simplify your finances — putting all of your debt in one place — and potentially pay less interest in the long run.
  4. Get professional help: Reach out to a nonprofit credit counseling agency that can set up a debt management plan. You’ll pay the agency a set amount every month that goes toward each of your debts. The agency works to negotiate a lower bill or interest rate on your behalf and, in some cases, can get your debt canceled.

The bottom line

It can feel like it’ll take a lifetime to get out of a huge debt trap. You may skip payments, consider not paying at all or file for bankruptcy. While you might, in certain circumstances, get out of paying your outstanding debt, the likelihood is low. And more often than not, it’s harmful to your financial well-being to avoid paying your outstanding debt.

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Written by
Dori Zinn
Contributing writer
Dori Zinn has been a personal finance journalist for more than a decade. Aside from her work for Bankrate, her bylines have appeared on CNET, Yahoo Finance, MSN Money, Wirecutter, Quartz, Inc. and more. She loves helping people learn about money, specializing in topics like investing, real estate, borrowing money and financial literacy.
Edited by
Student loans editor