Key takeaways

  • Although bankruptcy will create financial challenges in the future, there are still steps you can take to help reestablish your credit profile.
  • To get your credit score to a good place, pay your bills on time, consider opening a secured credit card or have your utility payments reported to credit bureaus.
  • When creating a budget, experts recommend following the 50/30/20 budget rule, with most going to your needs, 30 percent to your wants and then 20 percent to your savings.

Filing for bankruptcy can feel like you’ve hit the financial equivalent of rock bottom. While it does wipe out your old debt or restructure it, bankruptcy stays on your credit report for seven to 10 years, hurting your long-term chances of qualifying for a mortgage or other credit.

What does life after bankruptcy look like? You’ll have to endure hardships — from cash flow management to establishing good credit and rebuilding your credit profile — but it’s possible to financially recover from bankruptcy and give yourself a fresh start.

1. Save all paperwork from your bankruptcy case

Though it may not seem like a critical step, save all paperwork from your bankruptcy case. You may be asked for copies of the bankruptcy files in the future, especially when applying for a mortgage, loan or other financial products.

“If a lender or debt collector contacts you in the future about any of the debt included in your bankruptcy filing, it’ll be helpful to have your paperwork on hand,” says debt attorney Leslie Tayne, founder of Tayne Law Group. “In addition, if a debt collector contacts you about a debt you thought was discharged in bankruptcy, you have on-hand proof.”

The paperwork you should keep includes:

  • Bankruptcy petition and schedules.
  • Proof of income that was included with your petition.
  • Social Security proof of income included with petition.
  • Correspondence from bankruptcy court, your attorney and bankruptcy trustee.
  • Final bankruptcy discharge.

2. Start saving money

After going through bankruptcy, the last thing you want is for history to repeat itself. To help ensure this does not happen, establish good financial habits, including starting a savings account that you can access during financial emergencies.

“Knowing how to manage your money is an integral part of the rebuilding process,” says Tayne. “Prevention is the best medicine, and saving money creates healthy financial habits for your present and future.”

One of the most effective ways to save money is to make doing so a habit. Some employers offer the ability to direct a certain percentage of your paycheck to a designated account that is separate from the account the majority of your pay is deposited into. In addition, some banks and credit unions also allow you to create recurring, automatic transfers from a checking account to a savings account.

3. Build a budget

While creating and living by a budget can sound intimidating or even restrictive, a budget is simply a spending plan to help you achieve future financial goals when used wisely. Establishing a budget can provide insights into your habits and prevent your spending from getting out of control again.

To start creating a budget, you’ll first need to calculate how much you earn each month, which will guide how much money you can spend and save every month. To determine your income, you should look at recurring, reliable sources.

You’ll then want to follow a few steps.

  • Track your spending for one to two months: This can help you determine how much to budget for various categories of spending.
  • Identify your financial priorities: After tracking your spending for a month or two, you may be spending more in some categories than you would like to or you’re not allocating enough money for other important categories — adjust these as needed.
  • Create your budget: Now it’s time to itemize the things you need money for each month. This list should include all of your debts and recurring bills, such as utility bills, grocery expenses and even money for entertainment. You should also allocate money for savings each month.

One popular approach to building a budget involves following what’s known as the 50/30/20 budget rule. The rule advises allocating 50 percent of your income toward your needs, 30 percent toward what would be considered your wants and 20 percent of your monthly income is set aside for savings.

Budgeting apps can help streamline this process. But even a spreadsheet or piece of paper can get the job done.

4. Reestablish good credit

Reestablishing a solid credit score is another important part of your path to financial recovery after bankruptcy, especially because it can stay on your credit report for up to 10 years. There are several ways to try and do this, regardless of the type of bankruptcy you filed.

Pay bills on time

One of the best approaches to rebuilding credit is to diligently pay all your bills on time, as payment history accounts for 35 percent of your overall FICO credit score. Focus on making timely payments on any remaining debts you may have to show that you can be financially responsible.

Open a secured credit card

If you don’t have any remaining loans or debts after filing for bankruptcy, a secured card can be used to show your ability to make on-time payments. A savings account in your name typically acts as collateral, and the amount you put in the account is your credit limit for the card.

Consistently making on time payments on the secured card will help you to rebuild a positive credit profile. Once you’ve made on-time payments for an extended period of time, the credit issuer may upgrade you to a traditional credit card.

Have utility bill payments reported

You can also try to have monthly expenses like utility bills, including electricity or even a phone bill, counted toward your credit history. You’ll need to check with utility companies to find out whether they participate in any services that report your on-time payments to credit bureaus.

Another option is to use a service like Experian Boost, a tool that allows customers to include certain utility and phone bills in their Experian credit reports.

Credit builder loans

These types of loans involve depositing money into an account. The lender will keep that money while you pay down the principal and interest of the loan. The payments you’re making are reported to credit agencies.

5. Regularly monitor your credit reports

The idea of looking at your credit report after filing bankruptcy can be intimidating or anxiety-inducing. Still, you will want to make a regular habit of doing so for a variety of reasons. It’s important to monitor reports diligently and consistently to ensure all information on your profile is accurate. Incorrect information can cause your score to be lower than it should be.

“If the discharged debt isn’t showing up accurately on credit reports, it could count against you as a form of outstanding debt,” says Tayne. Making matters worse, the debt could erroneously be transferred to a new debt collection agency which could be a challenge to resolve.

If you see an error on your credit report, you must contact the credit bureaus and the business that reported inaccurate information. Explain the situation in writing, including the credit bureaus’ dispute form and copies of documents supporting your claim. Keep records of everything you send.

Once the credit bureaus receive your dispute, they have 30 days to investigate. All evidence will be forwarded to the business that reported the information. If the business determines that the information they reported is inaccurate, they must notify all three bureaus to correct the information. The credit bureaus must give you the results in writing and, if the dispute results in a change, an additional free copy of your credit report.

6. Maintain your job and home

Maintaining your job and home is an essential part of life after bankruptcy and rebuilding your financial profile. You want to show lenders that you can pay back debts such as your mortgage and that you can maintain a reliable, steady stream of income through a job.

In addition, many lenders consider your employment history when reviewing applications.

Having a consistent income improves your chances of being approved for future loans. Job hopping or gaps in employment, on the other hand, can make you look like a risk.

7. Make an emergency fund

If you lose your job or face any sort of unexpected financial needs, having an emergency fund can help you avoid a disastrous outcome that lands you back in debt. You’ll want to get started on creating this type of savings account as soon as possible, even if you only have a limited amount of money to contribute regularly. The deposits will add up over time and making regular contributions, no matter how small, will help you establish the habit of saving.

There are a couple of common options when it comes to where to save your emergency fund.

  • A savings account with a higher interest rate: Online banks are a good option because they typically offer higher yields than brick-and-mortar banks with quick and easy access to funds.
  • A high yield savings account: Similar to a standard savings account, a high yield savings account pays a much higher yield on the balance in your account. Look for banks or credit unions that insure deposits through the FDIC or NCUSIF.

This money is particularly important after filing for bankruptcy because you will have limited access to credit, says Tayne.

8. Set financial goals

Do you want to own a home or a car in the future? Or go back to school? After filing for bankruptcy, focusing on your financial future, including these types of life goals, can help you stick to a budget and remain motivated to continue funding your savings.

Establishing financial goals, even putting them in writing somewhere, is an important piece of your overall financial wellbeing. Achieving your financial goals requires creating a specific, actionable plan to follow. In addition, goal setting can help to break down a large or sometimes daunting objective into smaller, more manageable steps.

Consider creating short-term, medium-term, and long-term financial goals. Your short-term goals are items that might require your immediate attention, while medium-term goals are things that you have a bit of time to accomplish. A long-term financial goal would be saving for retirement and other truly long-range plans.

Once you’ve clearly identified your goals and put them in writing, it’s important to follow good money habits moving forward to accomplish your long-term plans.

“Making good decisions about finances and managing cash flow is the best way to secure your financial future,” said Tayne.

The bottom line

While your credit score will typically take a significant hit after a bankruptcy filing, with hard work, patience and discipline it is possible to fully recover and get back on your feet. If you incorporate responsible saving and budgeting habits and work at building back your credit score, you can create a much better future for yourself.