Working with a debt settlement company is just one option for dealing with your debt. You also could: negotiate directly with your credit card company, work with a credit counselor, or consider bankruptcy.
- Talk with your credit card company, even if you have been turned down before. Rather than pay a company to talk to your creditor on your behalf, remember that you can do it yourself for free. You can find the telephone number on your card or your statement. Be persistent. Keep good records of your debts, so that when you do reach the credit card company, you can explain your situation. Your goal is to work out a modified payment plan that reduces your payments to a level you can manage. If you don’t pay on your debt for 180 days, your creditor will write your debt off as a loss; your credit score will take a big hit, and you still will owe the debt. Creditors often are willing to negotiate with you even after they write your debt off as a loss.
- Contact a credit counselor. Reputable credit counseling organizations advise people on how to manage money, bills and debts; help them develop budgets; and usually offer free information and workshops. They should discuss your entire financial situation with you, and help you develop a personalized plan to get you out of debt. A new law requires credit card issuers to include a toll-free number on their statements that directs cardholders to information about finding nonprofit counseling organizations. Most credit counselors offer services through local offices, the Internet, or by telephone. Look for an organization that offers in-person, face-to-face counseling. Many universities, military bases, credit unions, housing authorities, and branches of the U.S. Cooperative Extension Service operate nonprofit credit counseling programs. The federal government maintains a list of government-approved organizations, by state, at www.usdoj.gov/ust, the website of the U.S. Trustee Program. That’s the organization within the U.S. Department of Justice that supervises bankruptcy cases and trustees. If a credit counseling organization says it’s government-approved, check the U.S. Trustee’s list of approved organizations to be sure.
- Occasionally, a credit counselor may suggest that you consider filing for bankruptcy. Declaring bankruptcy has serious consequences, including lowering your credit score, but credit counselors and other experts say that in some cases, it may make the most sense. Filing for bankruptcy under Chapter 13 allows people with a steady income to keep property, like a mortgaged house or a car, that they might otherwise lose through the Chapter 7 bankruptcy process. In Chapter 13, the court approves a repayment plan that allows you to pay off your debts over a three to five year period, without surrendering any property. After you have made all the payments under the plan, your debts are discharged. As part of the Chapter 13 process, you will have to pay a lawyer, and you must get credit counseling from a government-approved organization within six months before you file for any bankruptcy relief.