The Benefits of Living Debt-Free

When it comes to debt, most of us have outstanding balances of one kind or another. Indeed, a whopping 80 percent of Americans are living in the red, according to a 2015 Pew Charitable Trusts report — eight in every 10 U.S. adults.

It goes without saying that debt can majorly impact your financial freedom. At one point, Simone Dennis, a 29-year-old health policy analyst in Baltimore, was shelling out in excess of $1,000 a month in minimum payments alone on a combination of auto, student and medical debt.

“I wrote that number down and looked at it every day,” she told MagnifyMoney. “I wanted to escape a life where I was burdened by debt and unable to change my situation because I needed the income.”

In other words, every financial decision she made revolved around her debt. But then she took charge and set her sights on becoming completely debt-free. At the starting line, she owed $65,000 in student loans, had $14,000 left on her car loan and had to contend with another $1,000 in medical bills.

Earlier this month, she reached her goal, wiping out $80,000 in just three years. (We’ll dive into how she did it in a bit.) These days, she’s excited to kick off a life where her income goes toward funding her long-term goals — not the creditors.

The benefits of living debt-free are often life-changing. If your current debt management style is making minimum payments and calling it a day, you might want to perk up and pay attention. Here are all the reasons why living a debt-free life should be your top priority.

What are the benefits of being debt-free?

More funds for your future goals

Unshackling yourself from debt frees up cash that was previously going toward paying down your balances. That means keeping more of your take-home pay. In some cases, it could mean breaking the cycle of living paycheck to paycheck.

Instead of being beholden to creditors, you can use this money to further other financial goals, like building up your emergency fund, kicking up your retirement contributions or whatever else comes to mind. Dennis is using that $1,000 of newfound cash to increase her 401(k) contributions for the employer match. She’s also planning a Mexican vacation to celebrate her accomplishment.

Marissa Lyda and her husband, Jacob, recently crossed the debt-free finish line after paying off $87,000 in student loan debt over a two-and-a-half-year period. This means they finally have some real saving power; getting out of debt has unlocked $750 a month that went toward minimum payments.

“We want to have a full emergency fund and start saving for a good down payment on a house,” Lyda, a 23-year-old accounting specialist in Portland, Ore., told MagnifyMoney. “We’re also putting more toward our retirement accounts.”

You’ll save money in the long-term

You’ll really feel the impact of getting debt-free if you carry any high-interest balances. Let’s say, for example, you have a $3,000 balance on a credit card with an 18 percent interest rate and a $125 minimum monthly payment. If you pay just that minimum, our handy debt payoff calculator reveals that it’ll take you 30 months to get to zero — and you’ll pay $747 extra in interest. These numbers are compounded even further if you have multiple balances and interest rates, which could cost you big time in the long run. (You’re essentially paying creditors to be mired in debt.)

In addition to the immediate financial freedom you can achieve, living debt-free can also majorly supercharge your retirement efforts. Think about it: If you took $400 you were spending each month on debt and redirected it toward a Roth IRA, it would grow to more than $485,000 over the next 30 years, assuming 7 percent annual returns. This mentality could make your golden years a lot more comfortable.

Your health might improve

Another interesting tidbit is that living debt-free may very well be good for our health. Money is the No. 1 stressor in the United States, according to the American Psychological Association’s 2015 Stress in America survey.

Chronic stress can suppress our immune systems and disrupt everything from our digestion to our sleep to our reproductive systems, says the National Institute of Mental Health. There’s also a link between long-term stress and depression and anxiety. It stands to reason that eliminating your debt worries could actually be good for your health.

Risks of debt-free living: How extreme is too extreme?

Conventional wisdom tells us that living without debt is the healthiest way to manage our finances, but this doesn’t mean swearing off credit all together. Doing so, in fact, can work against your financial fitness, according to certified financial planner and senior CFP Board ambassador Jill Schlesinger.

“If you live an all-cash life, then the moment you actually need a loan, you may be in trouble,” she told MagnifyMoney. “It’s highly unlikely you’re going to be able to buy a large asset, like a car or a house, in cash.”

When the time comes to apply for a car loan or mortgage, getting approved — and getting the best rate possible — is wholly intertwined with your credit score. A number of factors go into determining this number. Fifteen percent of your FICO score, for example, is determined by the length of your credit history. New credit makes up another 10 percent; having a mix of credit counts for another 10 percent. In other words, actively using credit responsibly accounts for 35 percent of your credit score. Going completely credit-free translates to a thin credit file that can impact important financing options down the road.

“I totally understand the anxiety of not wanting to live with debt, but going too extreme can be shortsighted,” said Schlesinger, who suggests one of two pathways for maintaining a robust credit score:

  • Use credit cards responsibly: This means paying off your balances in full every month and never carrying a balance. Your credit utilization ratio (i.e. how much of your available credit you’re actually using) makes up nearly one-third of your FICO score. Our experts recommend keeping your credit utilization ratio under 30 percent.

    Reaching for a credit card instead of cash or a debit card to pay for regular living expenses, like gas and groceries, is a great way to use credit to your advantage, so long as you’re paying off the balance in full every billing cycle. (If you can rack up rewards in the process, all the better.) Making on-time payments also shows future lenders that you know how to handle your credit.

  • Consider a secured credit card: Don’t trust yourself with a credit card? Thankfully, there are other ways to keep your credit score alive and well. Enter secured credit cards. These require the cardholder to put down a cash deposit, which determines their credit line, right off the bat. From there, you can use it like a regular credit card without the fear of digging yourself into a debt hole. Not carrying a balance and making on-time payments is key to boosting your credit as your activity is reported to the credit bureaus.

Eliminating debt: How to start

Pick a strategy

Making the minimum payment across all your open accounts isn’t the most effective way to pay down your debt. Dennis used what’s known as the snowball method to get debt-free as fast as she did. This means she continued making the minimum payments on all of her accounts, except for the one with the lowest balance, which she hit extra hard with bigger payments.

Once the lowest balance is paid off, you take whatever you were paying on that bill and apply it to the next lowest balance. It has a compounding effect, plus you can see your accounts closing one after the other, which can make you feel like a financial rockstar.

“I made monthly ‘mega-payments’ of about $2,700 on the debt with the smallest balance and repeated this method until all my debts were paid in full,” said Dennis. “The quick wins of the debt snowball method motivated me to keep going.”

One side note: While you’ll end up paying more in interest over the long haul, this tactic works wonders when it comes to keeping up motivation, according to The Journal of Consumer Research.

Alternatively, you can tackle your debt by prioritizing the accounts that have the highest interest rates. From a black-and-white, numbers perspective, this is smarter than the snowball method since you’ll ultimately get out of debt sooner and pay less in interest. Not sure which method is right for you? Our Snowball versus. Avalanche Calculator can help you make sense of your options.

You can accelerate your debt payoff journey even more by using balance transfer offers. These let you transfer high-interest balances over to new, lower-interest accounts with super-low promotional rates. These typically come with a 3-4 percent transfer fee, but if you can get a 0 percent card and pay off the balance within the promotional period, you can save big time in the long run.

Learn to budget

The key to accelerating your get-out-of-debt timeline is freeing up extra cash that you can throw at your debt. This, of course, requires sticking to a budget. Begin by listing out all your incoming money (income) for the month and subtracting all your outgoing money (expenses), which should include monthly contributions to your savings account. (Don’t worry, you can pay off debt and save at the same time. More on this shortly.)

What’s left represents how much you have to allocate toward your debt. If you come up with a negative number, it means you’re running in the red and need to make some lifestyle tweaks to avoid going even further into debt, which brings us to our next point.

Live within your means

Are there any ways to decrease your expenses? Dennis downgraded her cable package and cellphone plan, stopped paying for garage parking, and cooked meals at home in order to direct more money toward her debt. On a more extreme note, Lyda and her husband sacrificed their personal space and moved in with her parents to kick their debt repayment into high gear.

“We felt very suffocated by debt,” she said. “We weren’t making much, our rent was a lot, and our debt was enormous.”

In addition to lowering your expenses, think of out-of-the-box ways to increase your income, like picking up a side gig. Dennis tipped the scales by selling gently used household items on Craigslist and eBay. She also took on a part-time gig at a local yoga studio in exchange for a free membership.

How to maintain a debt-free life

Once you cross the debt-free finish line, celebrations are certainly in order, but you have to be intentional about not backsliding. Ask yourself how you got into debt in the first place. The way you answer is personal, but pay attention so you don’t repeat past mistakes.

Redirect debt payments toward savings goals

To keep you moving in the right direction, Schlesinger suggests immediately taking whatever you were putting toward your debt and redirecting it to some sort of savings vehicle, whether that be beefing up your emergency fund or upping your retirement contributions.

“It’s a great way to prevent falling back into those bad habits, and the more you can automate it, the better; out of sight, out of mind,” she said.

Top off your emergency fund

If you have nothing in your savings account, you’ll likely rack up new debt to see you through unexpected pop-up expenses. Set your sights on socking away three to six months’ of take-home pay in your emergency fund.

This, along with sticking to a budget, living within your means, and using credit responsibly, plays a major role in breaking the debt cycle once and for all. In some cases, your emergency fund could save you from financial ruin. The good news is that you don’t have to wait until getting debt-free to get your savings off the ground.

Debt versus savings: Which comes first?

According to Schlesinger, there’s a common misconception out there that competing money goals represent an either/or situation. But she says that it’s all about changing your mindset so you can fill more than one bucket at the same time.

“When people ask, ‘What should I do: pay off my debt, establish my emergency fund or contribute to my retirement account?’ my answer is always is the same: Yes!” said Schlesinger. “These big goals require some multitasking.”

If you’re actively in debt-payoff mode, press pause and focus your energy on setting the foundation for your emergency fund. Our insiders suggest setting a starting target of $1,000. Once you hit that milestone, go back to focusing on debt until it’s knocked out, at which point you can switch back to building your savings up to the three- to six-month mark.

Retirement savings don’t have to be put on hold, either.

“If you have 22 percent [interest] credit card debt, it’s hard not to make that the priority, but if you have a 401(k) match, you should put in enough to at least get that match; we shouldn’t be leaving free money on the table,” Schlesinger added.

The takeaway? You don’t want to be so laser-focused on paying off debt that you rob your future self of a comfortable retirement.

What you should do when you’re finally debt-free

Now is the time to ratchet up your savings goals. After bolstering your emergency fund, the next rung on the ladder, according to Schlesinger, is dialing up your retirement contributions — which is exactly what both Lyda and Dennis are doing. Schlesinger said the goal should be to max out your accounts.

Once that’s on track, you can start focusing on other savings goals like travel, saving for a down payment on a home, or saving for your children’s college education. Investing should also be a top priority at this point. We’re not talking about individual stock picking. Instead, the sooner you can zero in on low-cost index funds, the better. This will position you to really maximize your investment returns.

The path to getting, and staying, debt-free is rarely a linear one, but staying the course definitely pays off. The key is to strike a balance between using credit responsibly and sticking to a plan that lets you contribute to your other overarching financial goals.

The good news? A debt-free life is totally doable.

The post The Benefits of Living Debt-Free appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

PNC Personal Loan Review

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Updated November 08, 2017
With about 2,800 branches in 19 states and the District of Columbia, [PNCPL]PNC[/PNCPL]is the fifth largest bank in the United States. It’s primarily located in the eastern half of the US, with most of its branches and its headquarters being in the northeast.

If you’re looking for a personal loan from a trustworthy, familiar source, [PNCPL]PNC[/PNCPL] might be your answer. It offers an unsecured personal loan on par with most lenders, as well as a [PNCLoanAmt]secured loan that allows up to $100,000 to be borrowed[/PNCLoanAmt].

Most traditional banks haven’t been able to compete with online-only lenders in the personal loan space, so let’s see how [PNCPL]PNC[/PNCPL] compares.

Personal Loan Details

PNC has three personal loan options – secured and unsecured installment loans, and a line of credit. For the purpose of this review, we’ll be focusing on the installment loans.

Most online lenders only offer unsecured loans. In case you’re not sure of the difference:

  • Secured loans require an agreement to let your creditor use your assets as collateral in the event you default on your loan. This protects the creditor as it can sell your assets and recoup the cost of the loan.
  • Unsecured loans are the exact opposite – there’s no collateral involved. There’s less risk for the borrower and more for the creditor.

While secured loans seem to take the creditor’s side, the bonus is they often have more favorable terms because creditors are taking on less risk. You may have access to better interest rates or more money.

A simple example of a secured loan is a mortgage loan. Your home (property) is used as collateral. If you don’t pay your mortgage, your mortgage lender can seize the property and sell it.

Now that you know what it means to have a secured or unsecured loan, we’ll take a look at the differences between the details.

[PNCPL]PNC’s[/PNCPL] unsecured personal loan allows you to [PNCLoanAmt]borrow between $1,000 and $25,000[/PNCLoanAmt] on a [PNCTerm]variety of terms: 6 months, and 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5-year options are available[/PNCTerm].

[PNCPL]PNC’s[/PNCPL] secured loan allows you to [PNCLoanAmt]borrow much more – between $2,000 and $100,000[/PNCLoanAmt]. The collateral required for this loan is non-real estate (a vehicle, for example).

Both the unsecured and secured loans have fixed interest rates.

Unfortunately, you can’t check APRs or sample payments for secured loans online, and when we called, we were told they vary based on your credit. They were unable to give any APR range.

The APR for unsecured loans varies by the loan amount:

  • [PNCAPR]For a $5,000 loan, the APR ranges from 9.49% – 21.99%
  • For a $10,000 loan, the APR ranges from 6.74% – 19.24%
  • For a $15,000 loan and up, the APR ranges from 5.99% – 18.49%[/PNCAPR]

A payment example: if you borrow $20,000 on a 5-year term with an APR of 7.74%, your monthly payment will be $403.04.

The Pros and Cons

Applying for a personal loan with a bank is typically a bit more time consuming than applying with an online-only lender. This is because banks are thorough with the documentation they request.

However, [PNCPL]PNC[/PNCPL] states the application should take no longer than 15 minutes online.

Unfortunately, if you’re looking at the secured loan option, you can’t apply online. You can only apply by phone, or in person at a branch. You can apply online with the unsecured loan option.

[PNCPL]PNC’s[/PNCPL] APRs are also quite high, especially for the loan amounts. Many online-only lenders are offering better rates starting in the 5% range.

An additional negative might be that [PNCPL]PNC[/PNCPL] only offers fixed rates. While variable rates aren’t stable, they’re usually lower than fixed rates. If you’ll have the ability to pay the loan off soon after it’s disbursed, having the lower variable rate can be beneficial.

If you fall on hard times, there’s a possibility that [PNCPL]PNC[/PNCPL] will allow you to defer your payments, but this is reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

[PNCPL]PNC[/PNCPL] urges borrowers to contact the bank at the first sign of trouble – before their payment is due.

Application Process and Documents Needed to Apply

If you’re applying for an unsecured loan, you can easily apply online and be done within 15 minutes. [PNCPL]PNC[/PNCPL] recommends having the following information ready:

  • Your photo ID
  • Annual income, plus any other sources of income you have
  • Employer information (if you’ve been working there for less than 2 years, have your previous employer information as well)
  • Address/proof of residence (if you’ve been living there for less than 2 years, have your previous address ready)
  • If you’re applying with a co-applicant, you’ll need the same information for them
  • If you’re applying for a personal loan to consolidate debt, you’ll need account statements as [PNCPL]PNC[/PNCPL] needs to know your account number, monthly payment, and outstanding balance

[PNCPL]PNC’s[/PNCPL] application is straightforward, and it also has a checklist available for you on the application in case you need to reference it.

[PNCPL]PNC[/PNCPL] will use [PNCInq]a hard credit inquiry when applying for a loan with them[/PNCInq].

Who Qualifies for a Personal Loan With [PNCPL]PNC[/PNCPL]?

To have the best chances of being approved for a loan with [PNCPL]PNC[/PNCPL], you need very good and established credit, along with a reasonable debt-to-income ratio. Your loan terms greatly depend on these two factors. Being a customer with [PNCPL]PNC[/PNCPL] doesn’t increase your chances of getting approved.

Just a note – if you choose the secured loan and want to use your vehicle as collateral, it must be less than 8 years old and have less than 80,000 miles on it.

Who Benefits the Most from a Personal Loan With [PNCPL]PNC[/PNCPL]?

Borrowers looking for a larger loan amount would benefit from the secured personal loan with [PNCPL]PNC[/PNCPL].

[SoFiPL]SoFi[/SoFiPL] is the only other personal loan lender offering that much money, and while the loan is unsecured, it doesn’t have any physical locations. If you feel more secure applying in-person and receiving assistance from a trusted bank, you might prefer to go with [PNCPL]PNC[/PNCPL].

However, most borrowers will benefit from going elsewhere to get an unsecured personal loan.

The Fine Print

[PNCPrepayFee]There is no prepayment penalty for either loan[/PNCPrepayFee], so you can pay your loan in full at any time.

[PNCOrgFee]There’s no origination[/PNCOrgFee] nor annual fee for the unsecured personal loan.

When called, a [PNCPL]PNC[/PNCPL] representative wouldn’t disclose any other fees associated with the loan (late fees, returned payment fees, etc.).

Transparency

Since there is so little information on its website about the secured loan, it was important to find out as many details as we could from a call.

Unfortunately, the [PNCPL]PNC[/PNCPL] representative that answered the call wasn’t very helpful. The most she could offer was that the loan rates and terms were dependent upon credit, and that the credit score and debt-to-income ratio of an applicant was extremely important.

When asked about late fees for the loan, she said “another department” handles that, and was unable to transfer the call to the appropriate personnel, as you need to have a loan with [PNCPL]PNC[/PNCPL] before fees can be discussed.

This was rather disappointing. Most lenders are open to discussing these details with potential borrowers – fees can make a huge difference when considering loan options. To be one of the few lenders unwilling to discuss fees and rates beforehand kicks [PNCPL]PNC’s[/PNCPL] transparency down a notch.

PNC

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on PNC’s secure website

Alternative Personal Loan Solutions

As mentioned, [SoFiPL]SoFi[/SoFiPL]* is the closest competitor as it allows borrowers a [SoFiLoanAmt]maximum of $100,000 as well. The minimum you can borrow is $5,000[/SoFiLoanAmt]. Most personal loan lenders have limits of around $25,000 – $35,000.

[SoFiPL]SoFi[/SoFiPL] offers fixed rates and variable rates, while [PNCPL]PNC[/PNCPL] only offers fixed rates for its installment loans. [SoFiPL]SoFi’s[/SoFiPL] [SoFiAPR]fixed APR ranges from 5.49% – 14.24%, and its variable APR ranges from 5.19% – 11.34%, if you’re enrolled in autopay (with a cap of 14.95%)[/SoFiAPR].

There are no fees associated with [SoFiPL]SoFi’s[/SoFiPL] personal loan except for a [SoFiLateFee]late fee, which is 4% of the amount due or $5 – whichever is less[/SoFiLateFee].

You can borrow funds on [SoFiTerm]3, 5, or 7-year[/SoFiTerm] terms, and personal loans are available in 46 states, including the District of Columbia.

[SoFiPL]SoFi[/SoFiPL] also offers unemployment protection. If you lose your job through no fault of your own, you can apply for payment assistance.

[SoFiPL]SoFi[/SoFiPL] uses a [SoFiInq]soft credit inquiry[/SoFiInq] when you first apply to get your rates, which means your credit score won’t be affected. If you choose to move forward with the loan, a hard credit inquiry will be used.

SoFi

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on SoFi’s secure website

If you’re looking for good alternatives to [PNCPL]PNC’s[/PNCPL] unsecured loan, take a look at [EarnestPL]Earnest[/EarnestPL]. You can borrow between [EarnestLoanAmt]$2,000 and $50,000[/EarnestLoanAmt] on a [EarnestTerm]1, 2, or 3-year[/EarnestTerm] term.

There are no hidden fees associated with [EarnestPL]Earnest’s[/EarnestPL] personal loan, and it’s offered in 23 states plus the District of Columbia.

You’ll need a [EarnestCreditScore]minimum credit score of 720[/EarnestCreditScore] to be eligible for approval with [EarnestPL]Earnest[/EarnestPL], and a [SoFiCreditScore]minimum of 700[/SoFiCreditScore] to be approved with [SoFiPL]SoFi[/SoFiPL], but both lenders take other factors into account, unlike [PNCPL]PNC[/PNCPL]. Your employment history, education, and salary matter as well.

*referral link

It Pays to Shop Around

While it would be convenient to have the first lender you apply with be the best solution, that’s not always the case, even with a trusted lender like [PNCPL]PNC[/PNCPL]. Personal loans from bigger banks are falling by the wayside as online-lenders are offering much better rates and terms. Do yourself a favor and shop around to get the best rates, even if you have a prior relationship with the bigger names out there. If you shop around within a 30-day window, your credit won’t take a big hit.

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*We’ll receive a referral fee if you click on offers with this symbol. This does not impact our rankings or recommendations. You can learn more about how our site is financed here.

The post PNC Personal Loan Review appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

What Happens When You Miss a Credit Card Payment

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Your phone rings — and rings, and rings some more. You know who’s calling. You know what the caller wants, too, but you can’t afford to give the money you owe on your credit cards. So, you let the debt collector leave a voicemail you have no intention of returning.

That’s the wrong way to deal with delinquent credit card debt, says Michaela Harper, debt counselor and director of the Community Education for Credit Advisors Foundation in Omaha, Neb.

“Don’t be afraid to talk to your creditor,” says Harper. “Avoiding them makes the problem worse because it sends it onto the next division” and brings your debt closer to being charged-off, which Harper says consumers with past-due debt should do their best to avoid. (More on that later.)

Credit card debts — or most debts for that matter — become delinquent the moment you miss a first payment. The events that follow the missed payment depend on how long the past-due debt goes unpaid. It begins with friendly reminder calls from the bank to pay your credit card bill, and can culminate in losing up to 25 percent of your annual income to wage garnishment.

The portion of consumers missing credit card payments has been on the rise since the lowest levels of delinquent credit card debt ever recorded were reached two years ago. About 2.47 percent of credit card loans made by commercial banks were delinquent in the second quarter of 2017, according to Aug. 23 figures from the Federal Reserve Economic Database.

Below is a timeline chronicling what happens when you miss a credit card payment, as well as tips from debt management experts on what you can do to mitigate the situation at each point. (You can jump to a specific time period by clicking on the milestones below.)

Zero to 30 days past due: Missed a payment

After you miss your first payment, your debt is delinquent and the clock starts ticking. Your bank should begin to contact you to remind you to make a payment. You are also likely to incur a late fee.

The first 30 days will sound more like courtesy calls, says Randy Williams, president and CEO of A Debt Coach. In reality, the bank is trying to verify your address and personal information to update the system in case your debt becomes more delinquent. (Williams used to work as a bill collector before switching over to debt consulting.)

What you can do

At this point, the bank’s agents may be more willing to provide customer service, so you can ask for an extension or create a payment arrangement to address the past-due debt before the missed payment begins to impact your credit report, which can be as early as 30 days past due. You may also try your luck at asking if the bank could waive any late fees already incurred, although the creditor is not obligated to extend this courtesy.

There’s only so much leeway a bank will give you, says Gordon Oliver, a certified debt management professional at Cambridge Credit Counseling. If you’ve asked for a late payment or interest charge to be waived in the past, you won’t have much leverage.

“There will be different reasons why a creditor may not extend those benefits at the time, but usually those terms are for borrowers who are in better standing,” Oliver adds.

30 to 90 days past due: Collection calls begin

Over the 30- to 60-day delinquency period, the bank will attempt to reach you to collect the past-due amount on your credit card bill.

“This is when they are trying to figure out what’s wrong. They are trying to collect the money,” says Williams.

“At this point it’s starting to affect your credit,” says Williams. He says the robo-collection calls may come as often as every 15 minutes. Borrowers with higher credit scores are likely to see a bigger drop than borrowers with lower scores. According to FICO data, for example, a 30-day late payment could bring a 680 credit score down 10 to 30 points and a 780 score down 25 to 45 points.

In addition to seeing your credit score drop, you will be charged late fees on the past-due account. After you have owed debt for two payment cycles, the CARD Act allows creditors to flag you in their system as a “high-risk” borrower, which means the interest you currently pay will rise to whatever the bank charges for customers at a high-risk status. That number varies from bank to bank but in some cases can get as high as 29.99 percent. The rate will stay that high at least until you have made six consecutive on-time payments, at which point the bank is required by law to reset the rate.

However, “the law doesn’t say they have to do it on their own,” says Harper. So, you will likely need to request a reset. You can find the APR charged to high-risk borrowers in your credit card terms.

What you can do

Harper says if you respond at this point, the bank may ask you to negotiate a payment arrangement.

“Never make a promise to pay that you can’t keep just to get someone off the phone,” says Harper. “If you are silent, you agree to the payment.”

Missing promised payments also gives the bank more leverage if the bill eventually goes to court, says Harper. “If they walk into court and they can point to all of the promised payments, it undermines your credibility.”

Harper advises debtors to be very clear if they cannot meet the bank’s proposed payment arrangements. You need to specifically tell them you cannot make the payments. If possible, take a look at your budget. If you find you are able to send them a small amount every month, tell them.

“That’s a valuable thing because it goes back to when the account charges off. You can slow down your progression toward charge-off by making the partial payments,” says Harper.

A charge-off happens when a creditor believes there is no chance of collecting your past-due debt, so the debt’s considered a loss. The debt gets written off the creditor’s financial statements as a bad debt and sold or transferred to a third-party collection agency or a debt buyer.

“If they feel like it’s a tough situation [you] are going through they will refer [you] to a credit counselor” around the 60- to 90-day mark, says Williams. Again, that benefit may not be extended to all consumers facing financial hardship.

90 to 120 days past due: Bank requests balance in full

After your bill is 90 days overdue, the bank will turn collection over to its internal recovery department to engage in more aggressive collection attempts. Williams says the bank will now be calling for the balance in full, not only the past-due amount.

The bank’s collectors will continue to call, but they may also send you multiple letters every day, or may attempt to reach you via social media, emails or emergency contacts.

Harper says the account may stay with the bank’s internal collections for another 90 days (180 days past due), but it’s important to note that at the 120-day past-due mark, your debt is at risk of getting charged off and being sold to a third-party collection agency.

That’s because the CARD Act states the past-due amount needs to be the equivalent of six months’ worth of your credit card’s minimum payment in order for the debt to be charged off. Including late fees and the amount added in higher interest payments, consumers may reach that figure in as little as four calendar months.

What you can do

If you can’t give them the entire past-due amount or balance in full, take a serious look at your budget. See if there is any room to make even a small payment. If you can find a few dollars, you may be able to enter a repayment plan with the bank, which will at least pause the collection calls. Don’t forget to leverage the collector’s insider knowledge. Explain your situation and ask if you can negotiate a solution with the bank.

“You want to pay off the debt, they want to pay off the debt. They may have solutions they can offer you that you don’t know about,” says Harper.

Once you’ve got an active repayment plan in place, the bank will pull you out of the collection list, Harper says.

120 to 150 days past due: Hardcore collection attempts

Watch your credit report carefully after your account becomes 120 days past due, as it may be charged off at any point. At this point, the collectors will continue to try every channel available to them to get in touch with you and collect on the debt. The attempts may get closer together and collectors may try more aggressive tactics to scare you into paying up.

“One hundred and twenty to 150 days, it is hardcore. Now they are going to offer you a settlement. They will do whatever they want to try and get to you to pay the debt off. It’s basically motivation to get you to pay now,” says Williams.

Debt collectors at this point may also take time to remind you of your rights under the CARD Act and Fair Debt Collection Practices Act as well as their right to collect on the past-due debt.

The bank’s collectors may not directly say they will proceed with legal action or wage garnishment if they do not intend to, as that is illegal under the FDCPA, but they may remind you of those possibilities if you do not pay and emphasize the bank’s right to collect on the debt owed to them, Williams says.

Williams adds, “They never say they are going to sue you; they say, ‘We have the right to protect our asset.’”

What you can do

Williams says at this point the debtor essentially has three options. Bring the account current by paying the entire past-due amount, arrange a debt settlement plan with the bank or try going to a credit counselor to create a debt consolidation plan.

“Near 120 days past due, they need to get some form of help to remedy the account before it goes to a charge off,” says Oliver, who adds that the timing the charge off will be difficult to predict.

For those who may be behind on several bills, Oliver also recommends getting some form of financial counseling to create a plan that addresses all your financial issues.

150 to 180 days past due: Last chance

At 150 days, collections efforts will remain aggressive and may even increase in frequency as the bank is now concerned about losing the debt to a charge-off.

Once your credit card payment is 150 days past due, you may start to hear the bank’s agents’ tactics shift as they may make a last-ditch effort to recover the debt, according to Williams.

What you can do

You will still have the options to pay the balance in full or reach a settlement with the bank, but you may have an additional option: Re-age your debt.

When your account is past due and you enter a re-age program, the late payments and collection activity are removed from your account. As a result, “your credit score may improve by 10 to 15 points if not growing every month from there,” according to Williams.

You will generally be asked to make at least three on-time payments on the debt before your account is re-aged. For example, the bank could ask you to pay $100 each month for three months before bringing your account back up to a current standing, but the bank will add the interest and fees you’ve already incurred to the total amount you owe. After the account is re-aged, you’ll go back to making minimum payments on the total amount of debt outstanding. Re-aging the account may also remove the “high-risk” stain from the account so your interest rate drops to to whatever it was before.

Williams says a re-age can be seen as a win-win for both parties: You are able to catch up on your delinquent debt and — in some cases — have its impact removed from your credit report, and the bank is able to recover the interest and fees that have accumulated since your account became delinquent.

Of course, the credit card company doesn’t have to allow you to re-age the debt and may not offer the option to you, but there is a possibility it will do so if you ask. Keep in mind you are only allowed to re-age an account once in 12 months and twice within five years, per federal policy, and re-aging is only an option on accounts that have been open for nine months or longer. Credit card issuers are allowed to set more strict re-aging rules for its accounts, as well.

After 180 days: Charged off to a third party

When you are about six months past due, it is extremely likely the bank will charge off your account and sell the debt to a third-party collection agency. If the bank does not charge off your account, it may take the matter to court.

If it goes to collection, third-party debt collectors may employ some of the same tactics the bank’s collectors did. Most collection agencies will push hard for the first 90 days, then at the end of that point in time they may decide to sue you, Harper says. Or they may sell your debt to another collections agency.

The third-party collectors will attempt to contact you using every channel available to them for the next 90 days or so, before they must decide to either charge off the debt or sue you. The collectors will likely demand you pay the full balance or ask you pay the balance in thirds, says Harper. If they can’t get a hold of you or get you to arrange a payment plan in that time, they may decide to turn it over to an attorney.

What you can do

You should try the same tactics that you would have used with the bank’s internal collections agency with the third-party agency, negotiating the price down and reaching a settlement with the third-party collector. If you don’t respond to the collection requests, you may be sued.

You may not be sued for some time. Companies can only sue you for unpaid debts within a certain period of time, called a statute of limitations — anywhere within three to 10 years, according to your state’s law. Your debt may be sold and resold several times before that happens. Check with the office of consumer protection at your state’s attorney general to find out what the rules are in your state.

If you are served with a lawsuit, you should check the letterhead to make sure the attorney or company filing the suit on behalf of the collections agency is licensed to practice law in your jurisdiction, says Harper, as you cannot legally be sued for credit card debt by an attorney outside your jurisdiction.

You should also be sure to respond to the lawsuit. If you don’t, you’ll likely lose. The court can automatically side with the lender if you don’t show up in court, also known as a default judgment. That may result in getting your wages or federal benefits garnished to pay the debt, not to mention the credit damage a judgment causes. Federal law states a creditor can garnish no more than 25 percent of your disposable income, or the amount that your income exceeds 30 times the federal minimum wage, whichever is less.

If you can’t afford to settle

If, given your current financial situation, the debt is unmanageable for you and you are not able to settle the account, you may want to consider bankruptcy. But you will have to file before a judgment is entered against you in court, which may be tricky to time, Harper says.

Given the difficulty in timing when the creditor will take your account to suit, you shouldn’t wait if you think bankruptcy is an option for you. Read here for more information on how and when to file for bankruptcy.

The post What Happens When You Miss a Credit Card Payment appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Seniors Are Getting Crushed by Debt, New MagnifyMoney Analysis Shows

More American seniors are shouldering debt as they enter their retirement years, according to a new MagnifyMoney analysis of data from the latest University of Michigan Retirement Research Center Health and Retirement Study release. MagnifyMoney analyzed survey data to see whether debt causes financial frailty during retirement. We also spoke with financial experts who explained how seniors can rescue their retirements.

1 in 3 Americans 50 and older carry non-mortgage debt

The Health and Retirement Study from the University of Michigan Retirement Research Center surveys more than 20,000 participants age 50+ who answer questions about well-being. The survey covers financial topics including debt, income, and assets. Since 1990, the center has conducted the survey every other year. They released the 2014 panel of data in November 2016. MagnifyMoney analyzed the most recent release of the data to learn more about financial fitness among older Americans.

In an ideal retirement, retirees would have the financial resources necessary to maintain the lifestyle they enjoyed during their working years. Debt acts as an anchor on retiree balance sheets. Since interest rates on debts tend to rise faster than earnings from assets, debt has the power to destroy the balance sheets of seniors living on fixed incomes.

We found that nearly one-third (32%) of all Americans over age 50 carry non-mortgage debt from month to month. On average, those with debt carry $4,786 in credit card debt and $12,490 in total non-mortgage debt.

High-interest consumer debt erodes seniors’ ability to live a quality lifestyle, says John Ross, a Texarkana, Texas-based attorney specializing in elder law.

“From an elder law attorney perspective, we see a direct correlation between debt and institutional care,” Ross says. “Essentially, the more debt load, the less likely the person will have sufficient cash assets to cover medical care that is not provided by Medicare.”

Even worse, debt leads some retirees to skip paying for necessary expenses like quality food and medical care.

“The social aspect of being a responsible bill payer often leads the older debtor to forgo needed expenses to pay debts they cannot afford instead of considering viable options like bankruptcy,” says Devin Carroll, a Texarkana, Texas-based financial adviser specializing in Social Security and retirement.

Some older Americans may even be carrying debt that they don’t have the capacity to pay.

According to our analysis, 40% of all older Americans have credit card debt in excess of $5,000. More than one in five (22%) Americans age 50+ have more than $10,000 in credit card debt. On average, those with more than $10,000 in credit card debt couldn’t pay off their debt even by emptying their checking accounts.

Over a third of American seniors don’t have $1,000 in cash

It’s not just credit card debtors who struggle with financial frailty approaching retirement. Many older Americans have very little spending power. More than one-third (37%) of all Americans over age 50 have a checking account balance less than $1,000.

Low cash reserves don’t just mean limited spending power. They indicate that American seniors don’t have the liquidity to deal with financial hardships as they approach retirement. This is especially concerning because seniors are more likely than average to face high medical expenses. Over one in three (36%) Americans who experienced financial hardship classified it as an unexpected health expense, according to the Federal Reserve Board report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2015. The median out-of-pocket health-related expense was $1,200.

Debt pushes seniors further from retirement goals

Seniors carrying credit card debt exhibit other signs of financial frailty. For example, seniors without credit card debt have an average net worth of $120,000. Those with credit card debt have a net worth of just $68,000, 43% less than those without credit card debt.

The concern isn’t just small portfolio values. For retirees with debt, credit card interest rates outpace expected performance on investment portfolios. Today the average credit card interest rate is 14%. That means American seniors who carry credit card debt (on average, $4,786) pay an average of $670 per year in interest charges. Meanwhile, the average investment portfolio earns no more than 8% per year. This means that older debtors will earn just $4,508 from their entire portfolio. Credit card interest eats up more than 15% of the nest egg income.

For some older Americans the problem runs even deeper. One in 10 American seniors has a checking account balance with less than $1,000 and carries credit card debt. This precarious position could leave some seniors unable to recover from larger financial setbacks.

Increased debt loads over time

High levels of consumer debt among older Americans are part of a sobering trend. According to research from the University of Michigan Retirement Research Center, in 1998, 36.94% of Americans age 56-61 carried debt. The mean value of their debt (in 2012 dollars) was $3,634.

Over time debt loads among pre-retiree age Americans are becoming even more unsustainable. Today 42% of Americans age 50-59 have debt, and their average debt burden is $17,623.

Credit card debt carries the most onerous interest rates, but it’s not the only type of debt people carry into retirement. According to research from the Urban Institute, in 2014, 32.2% of adults aged 68-72 carried debt in addition to a mortgage or a credit card, and 18% of Americans age 73-77 still have an auto loan.

Even student loan debt, a debt typically associated with millennials, is causing angst among seniors. According to the debt styles study from the Urban Institute, as of 2014, 2%-4% of adults aged 58 and older carried student loan debt. It’s a small proportion overall, but the burden is growing over time.

According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, in 2004, 600,000 seniors over age 60 carried student loan debt. Today that number is 2.8 million. Back in 2004 Americans over age 60 had $6 billion in outstanding student loan debts. Today they owe $66.7 billion in student loans, more than 10 times what they owed in 2004. Not all that student debt came from seniors dragging their repayments out for 30-40 years. Almost three in four (73%) older student loan debtors carry some debt that benefits a child or grandchild.

Even co-signing student loans puts a retirement at risk. If the borrower cannot repay the loan on their own, then a retiree is on the hook for repayment. A co-signer’s assets that aren’t protected by federal law can be seized to repay a student loan in default. Because of that, Ross says, “We never advise a person to co-sign on a student loan. Never!”

How older Americans can manage debt

High debt loads and an impending retirement can make a reasonable retirement seem like a fairy tale. However, an effective debt strategy and some extra work make it possible to age on your own terms.

Focus on debt first.

Carroll suggests older workers should prioritize eliminating debt before saving for retirement. “Several studies have shown a direct correlation between debt and risk of institutionalization,” he says. Debt inhibits retirees from remodeling or paying for in-home care that could allow them to age in place.

Downsize your lifestyle

As a first step in eliminating debt, seniors should check all their expenses. Some may consider drastic measures like downsizing their home.

Cut off adult children

Even more important, seniors with debt may need to stop supporting adult children.

According to a 2015 Pew Center Research Poll, 61% of all American parents supported an adult child financially in the last 12 months. Nearly one in four (23%) helped their adult children with a recurring financial need.

Wanting to help children is natural, but it can leave seniors financially frail. It may even leave a parent unable to provide for themselves during retirement.

Work longer

Older workers can also eliminate debt by focusing on the income side of the equation. For many this will mean working a few years longer than average, but the extra work pays off twofold. First, eliminating debt reduces the need for cash during retirement. Second, working longer also allows seniors to delay taking Social Security benefits.

Working until age 67 compared to age 62 makes a meaningful difference in quality of life decades down the road. According to the Social Security Administration, workers who withdraw starting at age 62 received an average of $1,077 per month. Those who waited until age 67 received 27% more, $1,372 per month.

Retirees already receiving Social Security benefits have options, too. Able-bodied retirees can re-enter the workforce. Homeowners can consider renting out a room to a family member to increase income.

Consider every option

If earning more money isn’t realistic, a debt elimination strategy becomes even more important. Ross recommends that retirees should consider every option when facing debt, including bankruptcy. He explains, “A 65-year-old, healthy retiree would be well advised to pay down the high-interest debt now. Alternatively, an 85-year-old retiree facing significant health issues is better off filing bankruptcy or just defaulting on the debt. For the older person, their existing assets are a lifeline, and a good credit score is irrelevant.”

Don’t take on new debt

It’s also important to avoid taking on new debt during retirement. “The only exception,” Ross explains, “[is taking on] debt in the form of home equity for long-term medical care needs, but then only when all other reserves are depleted and the person has explored all forms of government assistance such as Medicaid and veterans benefits.”

Every senior’s financial situation differs, but if you’re facing financial stress before or during retirement, it pays to know your options. Conduct your research and consult with a financial adviser, an elder law attorney, or a credit counselor from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling to choose what is right for your situation.

The post Seniors Are Getting Crushed by Debt, New MagnifyMoney Analysis Shows appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

RANKED: The 10 Best Options When You Need Cash Fast

What happens when your emergency fund isn’t enough?

Long-term unemployment or a medical emergency can easily dry up a once-healthy rainy day fund, leaving consumers wondering where to turn next. According to a recent consumer expectations survey by the New York Federal Reserve, only one in three Americans say they wouldn’t be able come up with $2,000 within a month to cover an unexpected expense.

It’s during times of vulnerability like this that it’s easy to jump at seemingly quick and easy sources of cash, like payday lenders, credit cards, or even your 401(k).

Unfortunately, practically every potential source of cash that doesn’t come from your own piggy bank is going to cost you in some way.

But at this point, it’s all about choosing the lesser of all evils — when all you have are crummy options, how do you decide which one is the best of the worst?

We’ve ranked common sources of emergency short-term cash from best to worst, which can help you sort through your borrowing options when your savings dry up.

#1 Personal loan from family and friends

It’s an uncomfortable conversation to have with a loved one, but asking a friend or relative for a small loan can be a far better idea than turning to high-interest credit debt, or worse, payday lenders. Unless they’re offering, it doesn’t have to be an interest-free loan. Agree on an interest rate that seems fair and is lower than what you’d find through a bank or other lender.

Because you have a relationship already, you may have an easier time convincing them to lend you money versus a bank that would make the decision after doing a credit check and evaluating other financial information.

#2 (tie) Lender-backed personal loan

A personal loan can be a solid borrowing option if you need money in a pinch or you’re looking to consolidate other debt. The process to apply for a personal loan is similar to applying for a credit card or auto loan, in that the lender will run your credit and offer you a certain rate based on your creditworthiness.

If your credit is poor, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re out of the running for a personal loan, but it will cost you in the form of much higher interest charges. For example, Lending Club offers loans with APRs from 5.99% to 35.85%, but it’s willing to lend to people with a credit score as low as 600.

Why choose a personal loan over a credit card? It really comes down to math. If you can find a personal loan that will cost less in the long term than using a credit card, then go for it. Use this personal loan calculator to estimate how much a loan will cost you over time. Then, run the same figures through this credit card payoff calculator.

#2 (tie) Credit cards

If your need for cash is truly short-term and you have enough income to pay it off quickly, then credit card debt can be a decent option. This option gets even better if you can qualify for a card with a 0% interest offer. The card will let you buy some time by allowing you to cover your essentials while you work on paying off the balance.

Because the debt is unsecured, unlike an auto title loan, you aren’t putting your assets at risk if you can’t pay. Westlake, Ohio-based certified financial planner Edward Vargo says he would recommend using credit card debt first.

#3 Home equity line of credit (HELOC)

You may be able to leverage the equity in your home to cover short-term emergency needs. A HELOC, or home equity line of credit, is a revolving credit line extended to a homeowner using your home as collateral. How much you can take out will depend on your home’s value, your remaining mortgage balance, your household income, and your credit score. A home equity line of credit may allow you to borrow the maximum amount, or only as much as you need. You will also be responsible for the costs of establishing and maintaining the home equity line of credit. You can learn more about these here.

You’ll choose the repayment schedule and can set that for less than 10 years or more than 20 years, but the entire balance must be paid in full by the end of the loan term. You’ll pay interest on what you borrow, but you may be able to deduct it from your income taxes. Keep in mind that if you are unemployed, it will be unlikely that you’ll be approved for a HELOC.

HELOC vs. Personal loans

Because home equity lines of credit are secured against the borrower’s home, if you default on your home equity line of credit, your lender can foreclose on your home. Personal loans, on the other hand, are usually unsecured, so, while failure to make your payments on time will adversely impact your credit, none of your personal property is at risk.

#4 A 401(k) loan

A 401(k) loan may be a good borrowing option if you’re in a financial pinch and are still employed. And it is a far better bet than turning to a payday lender or pawn shop for a loan. Because you’re in effect borrowing from yourself, any interest you pay back to the account is money put back in your retirement fund. You are allowed to borrow up to $50,000 or half of the total amount of money in your account, whichever is less. Typically, 401(k) loans have to be repaid within five years, and you’ll need to make payments at least quarterly.

But there are some cons to consider. If you get laid off or change jobs, a 401(k) loan immediately becomes due, and you’ll have 60 days to repay the full loan amount or put the loan funds into an IRA or other eligible retirement plan. If you don’t make the deadline, the loan becomes taxable income and the IRS will charge you another 10% early withdrawal penalty.

#5 Roth IRA or Roth 401(k) withdrawal

Generally, withdrawing funds from your retirement savings is a big no-no, because you’re going to miss out on any gains you might have enjoyed had you kept your money in the market. On top of that, there are fees and tax penalties, which we’ll cover in the next section.

But there is an exception: the Roth IRA or Roth 401(k).

Because funds contributed to Roth accounts are taxed right away, you won’t face any additional tax or penalties for making a withdrawal early. The caveat is that you can only withdraw from the principal amount you’ve contributed — you’re not allowed to withdraw any of the investment gains your contributions have earned without facing taxes and penalties.

However, it is still true that any money you take out is money that will not have a chance to grow over time, so you will still miss out on those earnings.

#6 Traditional 401(k) or IRA withdrawal

Experts typically recommend against borrowing from your 401(K) or IRA, but when you’re in desperate need of cash, it may be your best option.

Just understand the risks.

If you withdraw funds from a traditional retirement account before age 59 1/2 , the money will be taxed as income, and you’ll be charged a 10% early distribution penalty tax by the IRS. You may want to speak with a tax professional to estimate how much you’ll have to pay in taxes and take out more than you need to compensate for that loss. There’s no exception to the income tax, but there are a number of exceptions to the 10% penalty, such as qualified education expenses or separation from service — when you leave a company, whether by retirement, quitting, or getting fired or laid off — at 55 years or older.

When you take that money out, not only will you lose out on potential tax-deferred investment growth, but you’ll also lose a huge chunk of your retirement savings to taxes and penalties.

#7 Reverse mortgage

Homeowners 62 years old and older have another option for cash in a pinch: a reverse mortgage. With a reverse mortgage, your property’s equity is converted into (usually) tax-free payments for you. You can take the money up front as a line of credit, receive monthly payments for a fixed term or for as long as you live in the home, or choose a mix of the options. You keep the title, but the lender pays you each month to buy your home over time.

In most cases, you won’t be required to repay the loan as long as you’re still living in your home. You’ll also need to stay current on obligations like homeowners insurance, real estate taxes, and basic maintenance. If you don’t take care of those things, the lender may require you to pay back the loan.

The loan becomes due when you pass away or move out, and the home must be sold to repay the loan. If you pass away, and your spouse is still living in the home but didn’t sign the loan agreement, they’ll be allowed to continue living on the property, but won’t receive any more monthly payments. When they pass away or move out, the home will be sold to repay the loan.

The reverse mortgage may take a month or longer to set up, but once you get the paperwork set you can choose to take a line of credit, which could serve as an emergency fund, advises Columbus, Ohio-based certified financial planner Tom Davison.

He says the reverse mortgage’s advantages lie in the fact that it doesn’t need to be paid back until the homeowner permanently leaves the house, and it can be paid down whenever the homeowner is able. You can also borrow more money later if you need it, as the line of credit will grow at the loan’s borrowing rate.

Take care to look at the fine print before you sign. Under current federal law, you’ll only have three days, called a right of rescission, to cancel the loan. Reverse mortgage lenders also usually charge fees for origination, closing, and servicing over the life of the mortgage. Some even charge mortgage insurance premiums. Also, if you pass away before the loan is paid back, your heirs will have to handle it.

#8 Payday loan alternatives

While regulators work to reign in the payday lending industry, a new crop of payday loan alternatives is beginning to crop up.

Services like Activehours or DailyPay allow hourly wage earners to get paid early based on the hours they’ve already worked. Activehours allows you to withdraw up to $100 each day and $500 per pay period, while DailyPay, which caters to delivery workers, has no cap. DailyPay tracks the hours logged by workers and sends a single payment with the day’s earnings, minus a fee ranging from 99 cents to $1.49.

Another alternative could be the Build Card by FS Card. The product targets customers with subprime credit scores and offers an initial low, unsecured $500 credit limit to borrowers, which increases as they prove creditworthiness. The card will cost you a $72 annual membership fee, a one-time account setup fee of $53, plus $6 per month just to keep it in your wallet. It also comes with a steep interest rate — 29.9%. After all of the initial fees, your initial available limit should be about $375.

#9 Pawn shop loans

Pawn shop loan interest charges can get up to 36% in some states and there are other fees you’ll have to pay on top of the original loan.

Pawn shops get a shady rap, but they are a safer bet than payday lenders and auto title loans. Here’s why: Because you are putting up an item as collateral for a payday loan, the worst that can happen is that they take possession of the item if you skip out on payments. That can be devastating, especially if you’ve pawned something of sentimental value. But that’s the end of the ordeal — no debt collectors chasing you (payday loans) and no getting locked out of your car and losing your only mode of transportation (title loans).

#10 Payday loans and auto title loans

We have, of course, saved the worst of the worst options for last.

When you borrow with a payday loan but can’t afford to pay it back within the standard two-week time frame, it can quickly become a debt trap thanks to triple-digit interest rates. According to a recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, only 14% of payday loan borrowers can afford enough out of their monthly budgets to repay an average payday loan. Some payday lenders offer installment loans, which require a link to your bank account and gives them access to your funds if you don’t pay.

Some payday lenders today require access to a checking account, meaning they can dip in and take money from your bank account if you miss a payment. Also, your payday loan will be reflected on your credit report. So if things end badly, your credit will suffer as well. They have no collateral, so payday lenders will continue to hound you if you miss payments.

And, of course, auto title lenders require you to put up your wheels as collateral for a loan. And if you rely heavily on your car to get to and from work, having it repossessed by a title lender could hurt you financially in more ways than one. The loans are usually short-term — less than 30 days — so this might not be a good option for you if you don’t foresee a quick turnaround time for repayment. If your household depends on your car for transportation, you may not want to try this option as there is a chance you could lose your car. If you don’t repay the loan, the lender can take your vehicle and sell it to cover the loan amount.

One more thing to watch out for is the advertised interest rate. Auto title lenders will often advertise the monthly rate, not the annualized one. So a 20% interest rate for the month is actually 240% APR.

The post RANKED: The 10 Best Options When You Need Cash Fast appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Create a Budget Designed Just for Dumping Debt

Even if you hate spreadsheets and numbers, coming up with a debt-destroying budget can be simple with a single rule: always apply excess funds to debt.

This rule can work with two of the most common debt repayment methods: the debt snowball or the debt avalanche.

The debt snowball method attacks smaller debts first, regardless of interest rate. The goal is to motivate you with small victories in order to go on and gain confidence to pay off larger debts. The debt avalanche method focuses on paying down debt with the highest interest rate until you pay off the balance with the lowest interest rate.

How Much Can I Throw Toward My Debt?

The math for your budgeting process is super-simple: Monthly income minus monthly expenses equals the amount of extra money you can apply toward your debt each month. The emphasis is on extra money because you’ll still want to pay your minimum debt obligations to avoid getting behind on your payments.

Note: If you still need help with the math because you’ve got to actually figure out how much you spend each month, you can use an app that connects with your bank to add up all your expenses. Check out services like Mint.com, YNAB, or Personal Capital to help you get quick figures around your income and spending along with categories for each.

Though the math is not too complicated, the harder part could be increasing the gap between your income and expenses to actually have a surplus in your budget.

Unless you’ve got little to no wiggle room in your budget, you don’t have to start cutting expenses quite yet. However, there are some expenses that are discretionary and should be omitted from your equation until you’ve tamed your debt load.

For now, just get a baseline of what you should have left over at the end of each month once all your bills and expenses are accounted for. If it’s $15, great. Start there. If it’s more, even better.

Once you get this number, use it to pay more on your debt than is required. So if your minimum payment is normally $50, pay $65 with your $15 surplus. It can be the smallest debt or the account with the highest interest rate. What matters now is that you do something to get into the habit of making extra payments on debt and accounting for it in your monthly budget.

How to Apply This Rule in Various Scenarios

If you budget with a goal in mind, the purpose of your money becomes clearer. Any kind of money that turns out to be extra should be applied to debt to reduce your balances. But the key is being mindful of extra money, even when it doesn’t seem to be extra.

For example, getting a raise is a reason for some people to increase their standard of living. They might move to a place with a view or buy that lavish SUV they’ve been eyeing for a while. If you’ve committed extra funds to a purpose (paying off debt), the decision is made for you far in advance of you actually getting the money.

The same goes for your income tax refund check. You might bank on this money every time income tax filing season comes around. While many people are planning spring break trips and shopping sprees with this money, you’ve got to make up your mind that this money is already earmarked for debt repayment.

Finally, there’s always that unexpected windfall: an inheritance, a settlement, or any type of money you never saw coming. This might be one of the most difficult chunks of money to part with for the sake of paying off debt. After all, you didn’t know it was coming, and maybe you didn’t have to work too hard for it.

In this case, it’s pretty tempting to want to splurge and blow it all on something you think you deserve. Things can get complicated at this point. But if you keep following “the rule,” this money is technically already allocated, and your debt repayment budget suddenly becomes easier to stick with.

Keep Widening the Gap Between Income and Expenses

This is the fun part. Why? You get to be creative and have more control over your debt repayment timeline. Want to get out of debt fast? Then you’ll have to figure out how to make your income outpace your expenses. It could mean adding a side hustle to the mix or getting more aggressive with cutting out or decreasing expenses.

Adjusting Your Tax Withholdings

If you pocket a large tax refund each year, ask yourself why. It is likely because you are paying too much in income taxes throughout the year. If that’s the case, you can change your tax withholdings through your payroll department to keep more money in your pocket throughout the year. It will mean a smaller tax refund come tax time, but you’ll have more cash on hand to put toward your debt with each paycheck.

Use this IRS withholding calculator to estimate your withholdings.

Decrease Your Income Tax Liability

There are more than a few ways to decrease your income tax liability. From IRA contributions to tax tips for entrepreneurial endeavors and other tax credits and deductions, there should be one or more things you can do to owe less on your tax bill.

Cut Expenses Where You Can

There are so many ways to save money on so many things. You can start small with things like eating out and having cable and work up to saving money on housing costs or refinancing student loans.

Then there are the diehards who go full monty and go through full-on spending freezes on things like takeout and travel. The list of cost-cutting measures can get pretty long, but you get the point: Go through your spending with a fine-tooth comb and find out where you can save and what you could cut.

Increase Your Income

Creating another stream of income sounds gimmicky, but there are ways to do it without getting caught up in scams. You can find a part-time job, provide consulting services on the side, or even start a mini-business like dog walking or car washing. It shouldn’t be anything that will cost you tons up front to start, and it shouldn’t hinder your ability to keep your full-time job.

You may find that you have to try a few things before you come up with the perfect combination of low overhead, quick to start, and profitable. That’s OK. Just keep plugging away until something clicks. It’ll be more than worth it to add that extra income to the budget for paying off more debt even faster.

Remember the Golden Rule: Excess Cash Goes to Debt

It all comes down to committing your cash to a purpose ahead of time. No matter how your financial circumstance changes, you’ll know what to do when you’ve got a surplus of money.

You’ll have to come up with a list of things you are willing to do to increase your cash reserves, but if you keep the goal in mind of continually applying extra funds toward debt, you’ll save on interest and also pay down your debt faster.

The post Create a Budget Designed Just for Dumping Debt appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Should You Use a Mortgage to Refinance Student Loans?

Fannie Mae, the largest backer of mortgage credit in America, recently made it a little easier for homeowners to refinance their student loans. In an update to its Selling Guide, the mortgage giant introduced a student loan cash-out refinance feature, permitting originators that sell loans to Fannie Mae to offer a new refinance option for paying off one or more student loans.

That means you could potentially use a mortgage refi to consolidate your student loan debt. Student loan mortgage refis are relatively new. Fannie Mae and SoFi, an alternative lender that offers both student loans and mortgages, announced a pilot program for cash-out refinancing of student loans in November 2016. This new program is an expansion of that option, which was previously available only to SoFi customers.

Amy Jurek, a Realtor at RE/MAX Advantage Plus in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn., says people with home equity have always had a cash-out option, but it typically came with extra fees and higher interest rates. Jurek says the new program eliminates the extra fees and allows borrowers to refinance at lower mortgage interest rates. The policy change could allow homeowners to save a significant amount of money because interest rates on mortgages are typically much lower than those for student loans, especially private student loans and PLUS loans.

But is it a good idea?

Your student debt isn’t eliminated; it’s added to your mortgage loan.

This may be stating the obvious, but swapping mortgage debt for student loan debt doesn’t reduce your debt; it just trades one form of debt (student loan) for another (mortgage).

Brian Benham, president of Benham Advisory Group in Indianapolis, Ind., says refinancing student loans with a mortgage could be more appealing to borrowers with private student loans rather than federal student loans.

Although mortgage rates are on the rise, they are still at near-historic lows, hovering around 4%. Federal student loans are near the same levels. But private student loans can range anywhere from 3.9% up to near 13%. “If you’re at the upper end of the spectrum, refinancing may help you lower your rate and your monthly payments,” Benham says.

So, the first thing anyone considering using a mortgage to refinance student loans should consider is whether you will, in fact, get a lower interest rate. Even with a lower rate, it’s wise to consider whether you’ll save money over the long term. You may pay a lower rate but over a longer term. The standard student loan repayment plan is 10 years, and most mortgages are 30-year loans. Refinancing could save you money today, but result in more interest paid over time, so keep the big picture in mind.

You need to actually have equity in your home.

To be eligible for the cash-out refinance option, you must have a loan-to-value ratio of no more than 80%, and the cash-out must entirely pay off one or more of your student loans. That means you’ve got to have enough equity in your home to cover your entire student loan balance and still leave 20% of your home’s value that isn’t being borrowed against. That can be tough for newer homeowners who haven’t owned the home long enough to build up substantial equity.

To illustrate, say your home is valued at $100,000, your current mortgage balance is $60,000, and you have one student loan with a balance of $20,000. When you refinance your existing mortgage and student loan, the new loan amount would be $80,000. That scenario meets the 80% loan-to-value ratio, but if your existing mortgage or student loan balances were higher, you would not be eligible.

You’ll lose certain options.

Depending on the type of student loan you have, you could end up losing valuable benefits if you refinance student loans with a mortgage.

Income-driven repayment options

Federal student loan borrowers may be eligible for income-driven repayment plans that can help keep loan payments affordable with payment caps based on income and family size. Income-based repayment plans also forgive remaining debt, if any, after 25 years of qualifying payments. These programs can help borrowers avoid default – and preserve their credit – during periods of unemployment or other financial hardships.

Student loan forgiveness

In certain situations, employees in public service jobs can have their student loans forgiven. A percentage of the student loan is forgiven or discharged for each year of service completed, depending on the type of work performed. Private student loans don’t offer forgiveness, but if you have federal student loans and work as a teacher or in public service, including a military, nonprofit, or government job, you may be eligible for a variety of government programs that are not available when your student loan has been refinanced with a mortgage.

Economic hardship deferments and forbearances

Some federal student loan borrowers may be eligible for deferment or forbearance, allowing them to temporarily stop making student loan payments or temporarily reduce the amount they must pay. These programs can help avoid loan default in the event of job loss or other financial hardships and during service in the Peace Corps or military.

Borrowers may also be eligible for deferment if they decide to go back to school. Enrollment in a college or career school could qualify a student loan for deferment. Some mortgage lenders have loss mitigation programs to assist you if you experience a temporary reduction in income or other financial hardship, but eligibility varies by lender and is typically not available for homeowners returning to school.

You could lose out on tax benefits.

Traditional wisdom favors mortgage debt over other kinds of debt because mortgage debt is tax deductible. But to take advantage of that mortgage interest deduction on your taxes, you must itemize. In today’s low-interest rate environment, most taxpayers receive greater benefits from the standard deduction. As a reminder, taxpayers can choose to itemize deductions or take the standard deduction. According to the Tax Foundation, 68.5% of households choose to take the standard deduction, which means they receive no tax benefit from paying mortgage interest.

On the other hand, the student loan interest deduction allows taxpayers to deduct up to $2,500 in interest on federal and private student loans. Because it’s an “above-the-line” deduction, you can claim it even if you don’t itemize. It also reduces your Adjusted Gross Income (AGI), which could expand the availability of other tax benefits.

You could lose your home.

Unlike student debt, a mortgage is secured by collateral: your home. If you default on the mortgage, your lender ultimately has the right to foreclose on your home. Defaulting on student loans may ruin your credit, but at least you won’t lose the roof over your head.

Refinancing student loans with a mortgage could be an attractive option for homeowners with a stable career and secure income, but anyone with financial concerns should be careful about putting their home at risk. “Your home is a valuable asset,” Benham says, “so be sure to factor that in before cashing it out.” Cashing out your home equity puts you at risk of carrying a mortgage into retirement. If you do take this option, set up a plan and a budget so you can pay off your mortgage before you retire.

The post Should You Use a Mortgage to Refinance Student Loans? appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

The Fastest Way to Pay Off $10,000 in Credit Card Debt

Before you read on, click here to download our FREE guide to become debt free forever! 

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Digging out of the debt hole can feel frustrating, intimidating and ultimately impossible. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be any of those things if you learn how to take control.

Paying down debt is not only about finding the right financial tools, but also the right psychological ones. You need to understand why you got into debt in the first place. Perhaps it was a medical emergency or a home repair that needed to be taken care of immediately. Maybe you’d already drained your emergency fund on one piece of bad luck when misfortune struck again. Or maybe you’re struggling with a compulsive shopping problem, so paying down debt will likely result in you accumulating more until the addiction is addressed.

Understanding the why and how of your debt isn’t the only reason psychology plays a role in how you should create your debt attack plan.

You also need to understand what motivates you to succeed. Do you want to pay down your debt in the absolute fastest amount of time possible that will save more money or do you want to take some little wins along the way to keep yourself motivated?

The common terms for these debt repayment strategies are:

  • Debt avalanche: starting with the highest interest rate and working your way down, which saves both time and money.
  • Debt snowball: paying off small debts first to get the warm and fuzzies that will motivate you to keep going.

Whichever version you pick needs to set you up to be successful in your debt repayment strategy. Now it’s time to find the proper tools to help you dump that debt for good.

The first step in crafting a debt repayment strategy is to understand what you’re eligible to use. Your credit score will play a big role in whether or not you’ll qualify for products like balance transfers or competitive personal loan offers.

A credit score of less than 600 will make it difficult for you to qualify for a personal loan and will eliminate you from taking on a balance transfer offer.

If you have a credit score above 600, you have a good chance of qualifying for a personal loan at a much lower interest rate than your credit card debt. With new internet-only personal loan companies, you can shop for loans without hurting your score. Use this tool to see if you can get approved for a loan without hurting your score. Click here to get rates from multiple lenders in just a few minutes, without a credit inquiry hurting your score. For people with the best scores, rates start as low as 4.80%.

If you have a score above 700, you could also qualify for 0% balance transfer offers.

[Click here if you’re looking to rebuild your credit score.]

Not sure what your credit score is? Click here to learn how to find out.

Now let’s talk about the financial tools to add into your debt repayment strategy in order to dig out of the hole.

Let’s say you have $10,000 in credit card debt, and are stuck paying 18% interest on it.

You already know that putting as much spare cash as you can toward paying down your debt is the most important thing to do. But once you’ve done that, so what’s next?

Use your good credit to make banks compete and cut your rates

MagnifyMoney’s Paying Down Debt Guide has easy to follow tips on how to put banks to work for you and get your rates cut.

You could save $1,800 a year in interest and lower your monthly payments based on several of the rates available today. That means you could pay it off almost 20% faster.

Here’s how it works.

Option One: Use a Balance Transfer (or Multiple Balance Transfers)

If you trust yourself to open a new credit card but not spend on it, consider a balance transfer. You may be able to cut your rate with a long 0% intro APR. You need to have a good credit score, and you might not get approved for the full amount that you want to transfer.

Your own bank might not give you a lower rate (or only drop it by a few percent), but there are lots of competing banks that may want to steal the business and give you a better rate.

Our favorite offer is Chase Slate®. You can save with a $0 introductory balance transfer fee, 0% introductory APR for 15 months on purchases and balance transfers, and $0 annual fee. Plus, receive your Monthly FICO® Score for free.

Chase Slate Credit Card

learn more

If you don’t think Chase is for you, consider Discover, which offers an intro 0% APR for 21 months (with a 3% balance transfer fee). MagnifyMoney keeps the most complete list of the longest and lowest rate deals available right now, including deals with no fees. Just answer a few questions about how your debt and much you can afford to pay, and you’ll get a personal list of the deals that will save you the most.

promo-balancetransfer-halfIt also has six tips to make sure you do a balance transfer safely. If you follow them you’ll save thousands on your debt by beating the banks at their game.

You might be scared of a balance transfer, but there is no faster way to cut your interest payments than taking advantage of the best 0% or low interest deals banks are offering.

Thanks to recent laws, balance transfers aren’t as sneaky as they used to be, and friendlier for helping you cut your debt.

Sometimes the first bank you deal with won’t give you a big enough credit line to handle all your credit card debt. Maybe you’ll get a $5,000 credit line for a 0% deal, but have $10,000 in debt. That’s okay. In that case, apply for the next best balance transfer deal you see. MagnifyMoney’s list of deals makes it easy to sort them.

Banks are okay with you shopping around for more than one deal.

 

Option Two: Personal Loan

If you never want to see another credit card again, you should consider a personal loan. You can get prequalified without hurting your credit score, and find the best deal to pay off your debt faster. With just one application, you can get multiple loan offers with rates as low as 4.77% here.

Personal loan rates are often about 10-20%, but can sometimes be as low as 5-6% if you have very good credit.

Moving from 18% interest on a credit card to 10% on a personal loan is a good deal for you. You’ll also get one set monthly payment, and pay off the whole thing in 3 to 5 years.

Sometimes this may mean a higher monthly payment than you’re used to, but you’re better off putting your cash toward a higher payment with a lower rate.

And you’ll get out of debt months or years faster by leaving more money to pay down the debt itself.

SoFi logo

Apply Now

The post The Fastest Way to Pay Off $10,000 in Credit Card Debt appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Can a Balance Transfer Hurt Your Credit Score?

 

When you are carrying a balance on a high-interest credit card, receiving a 0% balance transfer offer can be enticing. After all, shifting the balance from a high-interest credit card to a no-interest card means saving money on interest and paying down the balance faster.

But how will the balance transfer impact your credit score?

First, you should understand three crucial elements that go into determining your credit score: inquiries, credit utilization, and length of credit history.

  • Inquiries – How many new accounts have you opened lately? Whenever you apply for new debt, the lender performs a “hard inquiry” to determine whether they will approve your application. According to FICO, hard inquiries account for about 10% of your credit score.
  • Credit utilization ratio – How much do you owe? Your credit utilization ratio is calculated based on your total outstanding balances compared to your total credit limit. It is calculated both per card and across all of your credit accounts and makes up about 30% of your credit score.
  • Length of credit history – How long have you been using credit? This factor looks at the age of your oldest account as well as the average length of all of your credit accounts. The longer your history, the higher your score. According to FICO, the length of your credit history accounts for about 15% of your credit score.

How balance transfers can hurt your credit score

Balance transfer applications count as a hard credit inquiry

When you open a new account for a balance transfer, the lender will perform a hard inquiry. One hard inquiry is unlikely to have a large impact on your credit score. If you have excellent credit and haven’t applied for a card in the last six months, one hard inquiry may not impact your score at all. Inquiries could have as much as a ten-point impact, but that would be very rare. The typical impact of one hard inquiry is about five points. However, if you apply for several cards at once, the applications could have a big impact.

Balance transfers lower the average length of your credit history

Opening a new credit account will lower the average age of your credit accounts, which can negatively impact your credit score in the short term.

For example, if you have one 5-year-old credit card, one 3-year-old credit card, and one 10-year-old credit card, the average age of your cards is 6 years.

When you open a new credit card for a balance transfer, you now add a less-than-one-year-old account to your balance. At the most, your average credit age will drop down to 4.75 years.

How balance transfers can improve your credit score

All in all, the benefits of balance transfers can far outweigh the negatives.

You will likely lower your utilization rate

Opening new credit accounts decreases your overall credit utilization ratio, which positively affects your credit score over time. For example, if you have one credit card with a $5,000 limit and a $2,500 balance, your credit utilization ratio is 50%. When you open a second account with a $5,000 limit and transfer the $2,500 balance to the new card while leaving the old account open, your total available credit is $10,000 ($5,000 + $5,000), and your outstanding balance is still just $2,500. You’ve reduced your credit utilization rate to 25%.

What happens if the new account’s limit is just $2,500 and you transfer the full $2,500 balance? You’ve still reduced your overall credit utilization ratio. Now you’re using 33% of your available credit ($2,500 / $7,500). However, the negative is that there are still some points taken away if you max out one card. You didn’t have any maxed out cards before, and now you do. Credit scores are very sensitive to people who max out their credit cards as they’re seen as high risk. Maxing out a new card could reduce your credit score by about 30 points in the short term.

You will be paying off debt faster, improving your score dramatically

Where balance transfers get exciting is that more of your money is going to paying off the balance of your debt as opposed to interest. Ultimately, the best credit score comes from carrying as little debt as possible.

Using our previous example of the $2,500 balance on one card, assume that card had a 21% interest rate and you could afford to pay $220 per month toward paying it off. According to MagnifyMoney’s balance transfer calculator, if you did not take advantage of a balance transfer, the card would be paid off in 13 months, and you would pay $309 in interest. If you transferred that balance, even with a 3% balance transfer fee ($75), you could pay off that balance one month sooner and save $234.

In the end, your goal should be to pay off your debt as quickly as possible. Over the course of a year, as long as you stick to your strategy, you can eliminate that debt in a year, and your score will go up a whole lot faster than it otherwise would.

When to avoid balance transfers

The short-term impact of a balance transfer on your credit score should only concern you if you are planning on applying for a mortgage in the next six to nine months. During this period, every point on your score counts. Just a 0.2% difference in your interest rate can cost a ton of money over the life of your mortgage. In that case, wait until after you get the mortgage to do the balance transfer.

The bottom line

People are so programmed to think about their score that they sometimes lose sight of what they want the high score for. A higher score saves you money and gets you out of debt faster. Don’t focus on short-term fluctuations of 10 to 20 points. Use your good credit score to save money. That’s what it’s there for.

The post Can a Balance Transfer Hurt Your Credit Score? appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

5 Risks of Working with a Debt Settlement or Debt Relief Firm

If you’re deep in debt, you may have looked into getting some outside help to find relief. Frequently, your search for aid will bring you to debt settlement firms.

Debt settlement firms negotiate directly with your creditor to reduce your debt. If they succeed in settling your debt for a lesser amount, you will then be required to make one lump-sum payment, effectively wiping out your obligation.

Using these firms may sound like a lifesaver to someone struggling to pay off many debts at once. But debt settlement firms can actually cause more harm than good to your finances if you aren’t careful.

“Based on all the evidence we’ve seen, it is extremely rare that anyone benefits from using a debt settlement firm,” says Andrew Pizor, a staff attorney with the National Consumer Law Center.

Before you agree to work with a debt settlement firm, it’s important to know the risks:

5 Risks of Working with a Debt Settlement Firm

  1. You will have to stop paying your debts. When you begin working with a debt settlement firm, many firms will encourage you to stop paying your debts and start paying into a third-party bank account. The idea is that you will eventually build up enough money in that account to be ready to make a lump-sum payment when the firm succeeds in convincing your lender or collections agency to settle.

This, of course, means that your accounts are going to become increasingly delinquent. It can take up to 36 months to fully fund a debt settlement firm account, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

While you are not paying your debt, your creditor can send your account to collections or even file a lawsuit against you before the settlement firm gets a chance to negotiate. You could also be responsible for any interest, late fees, and legal fees that have accrued over that time as well.

2. They may not succeed in settling your debt. Once you have saved up enough money to make a lump-sum offer to the creditor, the debt settlement firm will attempt to enter negotiations. What they may not tell you is that some creditors will not work with these firms as a rule. That means it’s possible that after you’ve saved enough money for the payment — meanwhile, allowing your accounts to become severely delinquent and your credit score to tank — you could be left without a resolution at all. To avoid this, call your lender or collections agency directly to ask if they work with debt settlement agencies before you sign up for their services.

3. They’ll take a portion of your debt savings. If the firm is able to successfully negotiate, they will often take a cut of your savings in return. For example, if you owe $10,000 and they are able to negotiate a lump-sum payment of $8,000 with $2,000 of your original debt forgiven, the firm would take a percentage cut of that $2,000.

4. Your credit will tank. It is important to note that debt settlement shows up on your credit report when it is reported to the credit bureaus. It will serve as a red flag to future lenders that in the past, you have not paid your debts in full. This could result in higher interest rates, smaller lines of credit, or even failure to get approved for credit at all.

5. You could face a hefty tax bill. If the amount forgiven is $600 or more, you will most likely have to report it as taxable income. Let’s look back at our earlier example. When that person settled their $10,000 debt for $8,000, the lender effectively forgave $2,000. To the IRS, that forgiven debt could be treated as additional income and you could owe taxes on it.

What to Look for in a Debt Settlement Firm

There are six things you should consider red flags when it comes to debt relief services, according to the FTC:

 

  • The company charges any fees before it settles your debts
  • The company advertises that they are part of a “new government program” to bail out personal credit card debt. There are no such programs.
  • The company guarantees it can make your unsecured (credit card) debt go away
  • The company tells you to stop communicating with your creditors, but doesn’t explain the serious consequences
  • The company tells you it can stop all debt collection calls and lawsuits
  • The company guarantees that your unsecured debts can be paid off for pennies on the dollar

Almost all states have some form of regulation for debt relief services. Some states ban them altogether.

A debt settlement firm may be licensed to operate in your state, but that does not mean they are necessarily the best for your needs. Because state licensing agencies are not federally regulated, quality standards can vary widely from state to state.

What should you look for, then?

A best-case scenario, according to Pizor, is finding a company that only takes a percentage of your debt reduction in exchange for their services. “This setup helps better align their interests with your own,” Pizor says. If you do well, they do well.

How to Avoid Debt Settlement Scams

Most debt settlement firms focus on unsecured consumer debt, like credit card debt. The most common scams in these situations involve telemarketing. You’ll receive a call from a company posing as a debt settlement firm that promises to reduce the amount of debt you owe as long as you pay an upfront free. They may even tell you that you don’t have to pay a fee until later as long as you’re saving money in a third-party account.

The latter sounds legitimate, but in both these situations, the supposed debt settlement firm can easily run with your money. There was a flurry of these telemarketing scams following the 2008 financial crisis, prompting the FTC to add further federal regulations under their Telemarketing Sales Rules.

If you can’t sit down with someone in person, it’s difficult to judge their legitimacy. In these situations, it’s best to just hang up.

Another tactic scammers perpetrate is using a lawyer as a front. This lawyer may be licensed to practice in your state, but will outsource your debt woes to companies across the country, or even the world, that have no legal background.

In order to avoid this scam, make sure you can sit down with the lawyer face to face in their office. Pizor recommends asking probing questions to get a feel for their legitimacy, including, “Who will be working on my case?”

If the lawyer or a paralegal in their office will be doing the work, that is much more acceptable than someone they cannot immediately supervise in person, or someone without a background in law.

Scams also frequently happen in the student loan sector. You’ll often see settlement firms advertising that there is a “new government program” that could help you settle your student loan debt. This is tricky because there are legitimate government programs that can help those with federal student loans defer payments or even forgive their remaining debt, but you should never have to pay anyone a fee in order to access these programs.

In late 2014, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau prosecuted two companies that were preying on those with student loans.

Try Negotiating Your Own Debt Settlement

As long as you’re aware of the effect it may have on your credit, you can negotiate a settlement on your own. Many creditors have a floor for how much they’ll reduce your debt in favor of a lump-sum payment. This floor applies to debt settlement firms and consumers alike. By entering negotiations without a third party, you can save yourself the fees and potential victimization that you would risk by working with a debt settlement firm.

There are two important things to remember before you settle your debt:

  1. You will likely need to provide a lump sump payment right away. It’s unlikely a debt collector or lender will accept installments. Also, having the ability to make a lump sum payment could give you additional bargaining power.
  2. As we mentioned before: If the debt is settled for a lesser amount, you may be taxed on the portion of the original debt that was forgiven.

Consider Paying Your Debt in Full

Debt settlement leaves a scar on your credit report that will take years to fade. If possible, attempt to negotiate a lower interest rate and/or longer terms that may decrease your monthly payment. Just be aware that a longer term may lower your monthly payments but increase the amount of interest you pay over the course of your loan, even if your interest rate goes down or stays the same. However, you’ll more likely be able to afford your payments and possibly save your credit report.

That being said, some debts may have passed their statute of limitations in the state in which they originated. Once that statute of limitations has been passed, it is no longer possible for the lender or collections agency to sue you for those unpaid debts. Furthermore, they may have already fallen off your credit report. However, if you make any further payments, the clock will restart and the debt will be revitalized. Consult a consumer law attorney or a credit counselor before deciding whether to make a payment on an old debt.

 

The post 5 Risks of Working with a Debt Settlement or Debt Relief Firm appeared first on MagnifyMoney.