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Debt Help

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Monday, February 09, 2009

Debt and Marriage: How Selling on eBay Helped Me

When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Sell Their Stuff On eBayAnyone who is in debt, or has been before, is aware of the stress it can place upon other areas of life. I know it all too well: my marriage almost ended because of our financial worries. We were overextended and stressed out over our mounting debt, and that made us more prone to argue about anything and everything else. Our relationship is faring much better these days, mainly because I am now actively seeking work, plus I'm bringing in a little extra money each month by selling on eBay.

I started my eBay "career" by selling a dress, similar to the one in the photo, that I wore whdress sold on eBayen I was a bridesmaid in my mother's second wedding. I really liked the dress, and it had a bit of sentimental value to me because my mother passed away a couple of years ago. I knew, however, that the chances of me ever wearing it again were low. I ended up selling it for $48.00- not bad for something I didn't pay a dime for, and that was just languishing in my closet!

I also sell eBooks on CD. I found a website where private-label resale eBooks can be downloaded free of charge. For the price of a blank CD (less than fifty cents), plus a dollar or two for shipping, I had an instantly successful product. In my first week of selling eBooks, I had over fifty orders. My profit that first week alone was almost one hundred dollars!
Oster stand mixer sold on eBay
Not stopping there, I also make a decent amount of money by selling assorted knick-knacks and small items that I pick up at yard sales and flea markets for a low price. For example, last month I bought a 1970s-era Oster stand mixer at a garage sale for $4. I took it home, cleaned it up, and made sure that it worked and all the parts and pieces were there. Then I listed it on eBay, and it sold for $77 plus shipping. Quite a profit!

I also sell through drop-shipping. I list items that I think will sell. When the auctions end, and the money for the item is in my PayPal account, I go back to the drop-shipper's website, place the order, and the item is delivered directly to the customer. I don't have to keep an inventory or anything, which is what makes drop-shipping a convenient way to get into the eBay business. I have sold everything from baby items to mp3 players, and some are more profitable than others.


motorcycle sold on eBayMy biggest eBay sale to date is a motorcycle. My husband had it advertised in our local newspaper first. We had a few callers, but no one wanted to give a fair price for it. I listed it on eBay Motors, with a starting bid of $900, and it took off from there. It sold for $1,750, which was $250 more than we had hoped for.

I'm not claiming that becoming an eBay seller is a ticket to financial security, but I've been able to pay for our family's health coverage, and occasionally I can afford to put a little bit of money toward our credit card debt.

Money issues can cause stress in a marriage. I know it did for me, mainly because I didn't feel as if I was contributing to the household finances. Finding a side job (such as eBay selling) can go a long way toward easing that worry, and ironing some of the "wrinkles" out of daily life.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

FICO® Credit Score Holds Steady At 804

There are plenty of things I could complain about in my life. My credit score isn't one of them. My FICO® credit score has held steady at 804/805 since May of this year:

My FICO credit score - November 2008 - 804

I was hanging out in a CNBC forum the other day and came across an interesting thread. The user has a FICO credit score of 788, but is still worried about a comment in his credit report that reads, "amount owed on revolving accounts is too high." I know this comment well. I posted about this back in the summer of 2006 when my credit score hit 719. Yeah, it looks bad, but, in my opinion, that's just the FICO system's way of telling you that if you want to have a score of 800+, pay your revolving accounts down to zero. It's nothing to panic about. This note disappeared from my report when I paid all my personal credit card balances down to zero.

The fact that I still had a balance on one of my business credit cards at the time did not matter, since healthy business credit card debt is reported to business credit rating systems like Dun & Bradstreet's Paydex or Experian's Intelliscore service.

Now, if I ever get into trouble with one of my business credit cards and default (God forbid), the issuing bank(s) will almost certainly report the negative item(s) to all consumer credit monitoring agencies (TransUnion, Equifax and Experian.) They have the right to do this since I signed a personal guarantee when I opened my business credit card accounts, which is standard practice.

Even with my current score of 804, I'm seeing the following notes in my report as reasons why my score isn't higher than 804:

  • "The time since your most recent account opening is very recent

  • The length of time your revolving/charge accounts have been established is too short"

The top one I can understand since I only recently stopped chasing 0% credit card offers. But I find the second note quite funny since I have accounts so old that I'd even forgotten they existed.


Avoiding Interest Charges on My Main Business Credit Card

There is a certain balance on my business credit card that I have been targeting. This target balance allows me to have enough cash to save to for retirement (Roth IRA, of course!), pay my bills and child support, and have a little left over for savings (I wouldn't have a balance at all if the credit crisis never happened, but that's life.) Now, with this particular target balance, finance charges are applied every month. However, I've managed to avoid having to pay any interest by using the rewards points I earn each month to "purchase" a statement credit of $50.

My target balance is $4,000. Since this business card has an APR of 9.99%, the daily periodic rate for purchases is:

  • 9.99/365 = 0.02737%

  • 0.02737% is the same as 0.0002737

So with my preferred target balance, I am charged $4,000 x 0.0002737 = $1.0948 interest per day. This makes the interest I owe each month in the $34 range, which gives me some breathing room since I can't predict the exact amount that I'll purchase on this card every month. As long as the finance charges are $50 or less, I'm good.

How do I manage to stay close to my target balance? Easy! I login to my account at least every other day and check my balance. When my balance is looking too high, I schedule and online payment. Quick and easy. Whenever I make a major purchase, i.e. over $500, I make an online payment immediately, so that I don't mess up my average daily balance.

So, if you've been paying attention, your next question is likely, "so how much do you have to spend each month to get a $50 statement credit?" Easy. A $50 statement credit requires 5,000 rewards points. I get 1 rebate point for each dollar I spend on the card. So I have to spend $5,000 per month. In other words, it's a 1% cash back rewards program.

During the good times, when I'm able to pay my balance to zero every month, my points accumulate and roll over, which gives me plenty to play with during the bad times (I had about 28,500 points stored up when the credit crunch took a serious turn for the worse a couple of months ago. Converted all those points to statement credits.) However, my points do expire if I don't use them within two years, which is quite reasonable in my opinion.

So, with this technique, it would seem as though I could have a 0% business credit card forever, just as long as I keep spending and avoid having an average daily balance above the $4,000 threshold (this card has no annual fee.) But the reality is a "fixed" rate of 9.99% can disappear without much notice. That's because credit card issuing banks invariably reserve the right to modify the terms of each credit card account whenever they wish, as long as they give you warning of an impending rate increase and the option to opt out of it. Citi and American Express have plans to raise APR's for millions of their credit card customers.

This technique requires that I do a lot of spending on this card each month, which has worked out fine since I've been buying a lot of advertising lately. Even as business improves and I'm able to pay down my balance a bit, I have another statement credit tier to work with: I can get a statement credit of $20 in exchange for 2,500 rewards points. As you can see, this tier isn't as equitable as the top tier I described above, but I can still work with it. Maintaining an average daily balance of $2,500 would produce an interest charge of about $21.21, so I'd need to keep my average daily balance at around $2,200 (interest would be $18.67) and spend at least $2,500 per month.

Of course, I'd much rather end this game and return to the good old days of paying my balance in full each and every month. Yes, I'm taking full advantage of my card's rewards program -- and I enjoyed 0% on new purchases and a transferred balance for a year -- which is great. But by having a revolving balance, I'm playing right into the hands of my bank. Bottom line: this scheme could easily blow up in my face if my business has a really bad month.

Some credit cards offer up to 5% cashback on everyday purchases like gas, travel, home improvement, dining out, etc. The Discover More card is the perfect example. For some reason, I wasn't able to get a Discover More card, despite having a good credit score when I applied. When I submitted my application for this card, my FICO score was in the upper 700 range, yet my application was rejected. I checked my credit reports after that rejection, and found nothing wrong. Go figure. If you can get this card, do it. If you already have one, cool. The rewards are peerless in generosity, it comes with 0% intro APR on purchases and balance transfers and the "goto" APR isn't that bad (as low as 10.99%, variable) when compared to competing consumer cards in the American market.

But I'm not complaining. I like my flagship business card. It's a business purpose card, which enables me to have credit card debt and a high personal credit score simultaneously. Plus, the process that my issuing bank has setup for claiming statement credits is efficient and stress free. I just login to my account and within a few clicks of my mouse I've traded my points for a statement credit. Lovely. My other business cards either have APR's that are too high for my taste and credit standing (so I keep them for building credit and emergencies only) or, as is the case with my newest business card, the credit limit is way too low.

Discover has some relatively new business credit cards on the market now, and the rewards are quite generous, though not as generous as the Discover More consumer credit card I noted above. I'd love to apply for this card, but I'm gun shy as a result of my previous rejection.

So, why I am not recommending my favorite business credit card here? Good question. The answer is simple: it's not available anymore. A victim of the current credit crisis. In fact, I just visited the issuing bank's website to see what other business credit cards they have on offer, and found none. The market for business credit card receivables dried up last month (a receivable is any debt owed to a company/corporation that is not paid in full yet.)

Before the onset of autumn this year, my bank could take my $4,000 business credit card balance, bundle it with other credit card receivables and sell the debt to Wall Street. But investors don't want to buy that kind of debt right now because credit card defaults are rising, even with accounts held by prime borrowers.

Want to know when global credit markets will improve? Stay tuned to the TED spread (the TED spread is the difference between the yield on the 3-month Treasury Bill and the 3-month LIBOR yield; it's a reliable indicator of banks' willingness to lend.) Once it falls below 1.00 percentage point, banks will start (probably with baby steps at first) lending like they did before this decade's housing boom.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

If You Have A Citi® Credit Card, Watch Out: Your APR May Be On Its Way Up

image: money flying awayWe all know how profitable credit cards are for the banks that issue them. So it's really hard to believe that the credit card unit of America's biggest bank lost close to $1 billion during the third quarter of this year. Citi® made $1.4 billion during the third quarter of 2007.

So what's Citi going to do about it? Yup, you guessed it: raise interest rates on a substantial percentage of the bank's 54 million active credit card accounts. Here's a clip from today's Wall Street Journal article:

"...Meanwhile, Citigroup is notifying some credit-card customers that their interest rates are being raised by an average of three percentage points.

Citigroup is one of the nation's largest issuers of credit cards, with 54 million active accounts. The unit had a loss of $902 million in the third quarter, compared with $1.4 billion in profit a year earlier, as a growing number of customers fell behind or defaulted on their payments.

A person familiar with the strategy estimated that the rate increases would apply to less than 20% of Citigroup's card portfolio..."
If Citi has decided to target your credit card account for a rate increase, you will be able to opt out by calling of sending a letter to Citi by the end of January 2009. Citi will let you continue to use your card and keep your current APR until the card expires.

American Express is also planning to raise rates by 2 to 3 percentage points for certain Amex credit card cardholders.

The New York Times has a similar article about this here.

It's getting ugly out there folks. Time to payoff those credit cards.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Unforeseen Consequences of Keeping a Card in "Good Standing"

A few months ago, I called Capital One as part of my rounds when I tried to make arrangements with all the credit card companies I could no longer afford to pay. I started missing payments earlier in the year, after a surgery kept me out of work for a month. My wife and I are teachers, and summers are usually the lean months, which leaves us spending most of the year trying to catch up on our debt instead of getting ahead of it. That one month was like the pebble that started the avalanche, and soon I was missing or late with payments on most of my credit cards, instead of letting one slip so I could catch up on the others.

I had financial trouble the year before, which I fixed for the most part, except for my interest rates, which had jumped to insane and unreasonable levels. When I had to choose between paying the mortgage on my house or making payments on several credit cards I hadn't been able to use in years, I chose to let them slide. My interest rates were already terrible at 37.17% for the Bank of America card, 25.83% for First USA, and a variable rate with Capital One that never went lower than 21%. I had a Best Buy card floating around as well, but the last time I'd gone to their website, they refused to take my payment and sent me to a customer service number, clearly part of some brilliant scheme to get me to pay by denying me access to my usual method of payment.

The rates were already out of control, how much worse could they possibly get? And how exactly did they think that I could pay twice my normal payment if I couldn't pay the regular payment the month before? Maybe if I spent a few months trying to catch up on my overdue utilities, I could put together enough money to tackle one of the ever-expanding minimum payments and start fresh.

Even as I was missing these payments, I still made an effort to pay Capital One on time. It was my oldest credit card, with my largest balance, and like so many Americans with debt problems, I made the mistake of treating the highest balance as the highest priority. Here's what I received from Capital One in return: while all the credit card companies I had been unable to pay were willing to place me in programs that would accept lower payments, offer lower rates, or even just cut out the ridiculously high late payment fees, Capital One wouldn't.

By paying them when all of my other cards were getting late or no payments at all, I kept them in good standing. That was, apparently, a mistake. I was informed that they could not possibly put me in their program because my account was in good standing. They would only do that if I missed several payments.

I asked to speak with a supervisor, and the supervisor confirmed that even though I was trying to avoid damaging my credit by making arrangements, they could not make arrangements with me as long as my account was in "good standing." "Okay, so what you're saying to me is that the only way you'll be able to put me in a program is if I stop making payments for a while and destroy my credit with you?" The supervisor hedged a little, but he basically agreed. They only offer the program to people who haven't paid.

So I took his advice and stopped making payments. I put the money toward payments I negotiated with the other credit card companies, who were very understanding about my situation. It's been about 90 days now and I've finally fallen from Capital One's good graces. They sent me a letter urging me to call them and make arrangements so that my credit won't be further damaged. Imagine that.

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Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Pros and Cons of Settling a Past Due Debt

Before the economy fell into the dark pit of despair that it seems to be in today, I was barely making ends meet. We had far too many bills than we had money coming in. At one time I sat down and ran the numbers and we were over $150,000 in debt on an income of $50,000 a year (I was not working at the time). Coupled with the fact that I was in very poor health and making over a year and a half's worth of doctor trips and hospital visits, and we were afraid to answer our phone from the bill collectors calling day and night. I had four hospital stays in that period of time from kidney stone and getting my gall bladder out, and then was plagued with fibromyalgia and interstitial cystitis. Between the mounting medical bills and having more bills than income, we were sinking further and further behind. Finally it got to the point when they (the bill collectors) were offering to settle our past due debt for 50% of the balance. Some of these were medical bills, others were credit cards used to get by when we just didn't have any money left. There were even times when I was getting a cash advance on one just to pay the minimum payments on the rest. Truly a dark time in our financial life.

The Pro's
The phone stopped ringing with twelve different collection agencies calling about the same bill. That was the biggest relief. Then there was the matter of just knowing that the debt was settled, done, and over with. It was a positive step in the right direction to trying to rid ourselves of debt and credit. It was far easier to come up with the diminished lump sum payment they wanted to settle than it was the entire amount of the debt. Every dollar that we "saved" in the lesser amount was able to go toward another debt that was still in the (now shrinking) pile of bills. Attempts at payment arrangements never seemed to be enough for the creditors that we had. They (before the settlement offer) were unwilling to accept a payment plan that would have worked for us, and kept piling on late charges and over the limit fees on the credit cards.

The Con's
About two months after settling the debt, it was showing up on our credit reports. I didn't think about it at the time, considering it a good thing that we at least paid most of the debt and stopped the collections, but it was working against us still credit wise. They were actually viewing the settled debt worse than if we weren't paying on the debt. What we did was do a "charge off" where the agencies forgive the large portion of the debt and stop trying to collect. These charge offs appear on our credit statement just as if we hadn't paid a thing and the companies decided to just stop attempting to collect. A very bad sign for anyone looking at our credit report. Now I realize that with our new mindset of Cash Only in paying for things the credit report should really not matter much, but it does.

In summary, if you are in over your head it’s a very personal decision. It definitely isn't a magic wand quick fix and all your credit and debt troubles go away. The best advice would be to talk to a financial consultant about where you are and where you would like to be in the future and the best method to get to that happy place. For us, had I had it to do over again knowing about the black marks on the credit report and everything, I'm certain I still would have done it. Today I have a savings, no credit debt, no harassing phone calls all the time from collection agencies, and the ability to know that we can save for the things we want instead of paying for it on credit. It was a good decision for me.

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