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Debt Help

The Debt & Personal Finance Blog and Magazine

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

After 9/11 Creditors Told Me, "There's Nothing We Can Do"

My husband worked on the 81st floor of Tower One in the World Trade Center for a company called Network Plus. On September 11th his entire office managed to climb down all 81 flights of stairs and escape just minutes before the buildings started to collapse. His boss guided the entire team of salespeople down and encouraged my husband to continue when he felt tired. At one point my husband’s boss even left the team in order to help carry a woman in a wheelchair down the stairs to safety. Miraculously, she survived as did everyone in my husband’s company. As the highest office to have every member survive, Oprah Winfrey even had them appear on her show.


The ordeal was stressful enough for us to deal with, and after a few weeks passed the company he worked for went out of business. They tried to survive by relocating but the entire city was in such turmoil that the company simply couldn’t make it work. I realized that my husband was the bread winner and I had no idea how we were going to pay for our bills. We had managed to accrue quite a lot of credit card debt and now had only my small teacher’s salary to pay for it all. As the bills continued to pile up I started to make phone calls to the credit card companies with the hopes of working out a payment plan. What ended up happening instead was my filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.


Before September 11th I had a credit score of about 650 and had over $10,000 in credit card debt. My payments were always on time and I rarely had any problems. Most of my debt was due to department store credit cards such as Macy’s, Ikea, Express and Spiegel. I also had an electric bill that I couldn’t pay and a cell phone bill which piled up. The interest rates were sky high, over twenty percent for each card and I knew if I didn’t work something out I was going to sink fast. Paired with the late fees I knew it would happen quickly if I didn’t do something fast. The largest amount I owed was to American Express and since they require payment within thirty days they were the first company I called.


To say that American Express is cold-hearted would be a nice way of describing them. I explained to the representatives over numerous phone calls that I wasn’t looking to get out of paying the $2,000 I owed them but that I needed more time than the thirty days. They could care less. They didn’t even sound sympathetic when I spoke to them nor did they seem to care about my situation. As if programmed like a robot, each representative I spoke with said the same thing to me, “there’s nothing we can do”. They would take nothing less than the full amount owed and as long as I didn’t pay it the late fees would continue. The late fees started to add up into the hundreds as November rolled around.


The other department stores sometimes sounded sympathetic when I told them about my situation but could do little to nothing to help me. The representative I spoke to at Spiegel was distraught to hear about my situation and immediately put her manager on the phone. He explained that there was little he could for me except to lower my interest rate from a 22% to a 12%. He waived one late fee for me but gave me no extension.


I found that no one really wanted to do me any favors at all. I explained to each one that I simply needed a two month period during which no late fees or other charges would be given to me. Even when I explained that I would be forced to file for bankruptcy they still gave me the same line – “there’s nothing we can do”.


The only company that helped me out was the bank that issued my student loans. Citibank immediately issued me forbearance for my student loans and gave me no problems whatsoever. They were nice and understanding and were actually the only company that did anything to help me during the difficult time.


My credit score began to plummet as did my credit history. After I filed for bankruptcy in December my score dropped to the low 500’s and stayed there for years. I couldn’t rent an apartment and I had a hard time getting utilities without paying a deposit. The funny thing was that my husband found a new job within months and our income was back where it was before, but none of that mattered when companies looked at my credit report.


Today my credit is back up to a 620 but is still marked with the bankruptcy. If the credit card companies had taken the time to work with me they would’ve had their money and I would’ve kept a clean credit report.

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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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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

What A Little Effort Can Do For Debt Reduction

There are many, many things I love about my life here in the beautiful mesas of the Chihuahuan Desert. Among those are the contrasts, the juxtapositioning of old and new ways of living.

While I make use of the remarkable technologies of today as I write this now, I spent some time this morning as the indigenous women of this region did for thousands of years -- making tortillas. And, while I was working, I was thinking about a couple things related to cooking at home -- far less expensive and far more healthy overall.

I could buy tortillas. They run about a dollar a
dozen. In the photos (always clickable for a larger view), I am mixing up a batch of about 40 for less than a dollar... and, if I do say so myself, my home-made, fresh tortillas are far better than those mass produced in the factory and bagged up. Everyone here has said so, too.

In the big pot next to my wanna-be comal -- I have no proper comal for tortilla making, so I make do with a well-seasoned iron skillet -- are about 5 pounds of pinto beans. I'm feeding 9
people with hearty appetites. I'll be smashing and
frying a good portion of those beans with some
spices for tacos tonight, which is why I made
tortillas this morning. The rest of the beans will be used tomorrow by my sister to make her awesome chili.

The dried beans are pretty inexpensive, about 2 dollars for 4 pounds. Canned beans are easily double and often triple the price. It seems kind of silly to pay that when cooking dry beans is so easy. If I wanted to, I could buy canned refried beans for my tacos, though that would also be much more expensive, and I'd still have to add spices to make them palatable. Furthermore, they'd be less nutritious from the can, and probably have MSG and be high in sodium.

My point, over all, is that many people spend a lot of money on prepared foods, convenience foods, and drive-through foods, when by investing a little effort they could save a considerable amount on their food bill by cooking at home. Furthermore, most of those quick foods are price heavy and nutrition light. The benefits of eating fresh, whole foods are innumerable, but if we stick to the financial aspect for a moment, improved health leads to less money spent on costly health care.

There are many things in day-to-day life that are similar. For those looking to reduce debt and decrease spending (leaving more money for saving or more time for something other than working to pay the bills), learning to do basic repair tasks around the home and on the auto really isn't all that difficult. Being less dependent on others to meet your needs is a very good thing, particularly in today's economic climate.

I've been following the recent news about food shortages, skyrocketing prices, and the rationing of some food items throughout the world with a blend of fascination and horror. This is exactly the scenario that inspired me to remove my family from the city. I, geek that I am, have strange hobbies. Global economics is one of those hobbies and I've been watching trends for a few years now. To me, as well as to many financial experts, it looks like times are sure to be fiscally challenging in the near future and for a significant period of time thereafter. The financial markets are going to have to go through their spasms of correction and we're all going to have to go along for the ride.

During the Great Depression, while those in rural areas did experience severe poverty, they did have a significant advantage over those living in urban areas -- the ability to grow and hunt for their food. During World War II, the Victory Garden was an important supplement to households throughout the nation, including urban neighborhoods, as common, daily-use foods were rationed by the government. Looking at our situation today, it seems that learning to develop a bit of food self-sufficiency -- whether by cooking more, creating urban patio or fire escape gardens in containers, or larger suburban or rural gardens --is not just good economics in terms of a debt reduction plan or strategy for reducing overall expenses, but also simply good old-fashioned common sense.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Out Of The Blue...


We've had the equipment for weeks. What we didn't have was an installer. The company couldn't seem to locate one willing to come to our remote high desert location. Naturally, they made no mention of that potential difficulty when they took the order.

So, we held the equipment through installation cancellation after installation cancellation. We just had our appointment for April 30th recently canceled, as the closest installer had to drive 800 miles and had yet to schedule other installs in the area.

And, then, out of the blue, this past Saturday, installers arrived with no notice. After, of course, I'd contacted another satellite company because this one couldn't seem to get the job done. Naturally, their website is just as good as their customer service and I cannot get into my account and will have to go somewhere to call them, as there is no way to e-mail their support system. That doesn't surprise me, ha ha ha.

All that, though, seems fairly small in comparison to this great leap forward for us here in the desert. I can now work from home again. The past few weeks of me having to go out to work have been very stressful for the children. I've always been at home with them. With everybody -- my sister and my brother -- having daily access to the Internet, everybody can get back to work and we can start moving forward with a variety of essential projects, like solar panels to run the modem so we don't have to use the gas powered generator as much.

With all that is in the news today -- food shortages and rapidly increasing prices, oil prices skyrocketing, the dollar continuing its fall, an epidemic of struggling mortgagees, a tidal wave of foreclosures, and the potentials that lie underneath the staggering burden of consumer debt -- our efforts towards sustainability and self-sufficiency seem quite timely and more important than ever.

The path for some of our nation's banking and lending institutions seems inevitably to lead to failure. Already sustaining significant losses from the sub-prime mortgage and lending debacle, many of these institutions are now having to deal with consumer debt gone bad. Economically stressed consumers have been missing payments as they struggle to make their salaries extend to cover the most basic of needs as the costs of those needs move steadily upwards.

That oft repeated Chinese curse -- not the one referring to flooding the market with cheap consumer goods, but the one that says may you live in interesting times -- appears to be an apt description of our current situation. Very interesting times, indeed. To me, everything going on today indicates an imperative need for preparation -- reduce debt, increase savings, and stock the shelves.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

It's A Long Road...

Now that we have this 46 acres of land, it's a long road to getting everything set up and running smooth. There is so much to do, from devising and setting up alternative energy systems to making adobe bricks to dealing with the utility companies that we do plan to do business with.

The dirt road you see -- that's the road we live on. We see another vehicle go by once every two or three weeks. When we came here, it was a nameless and dusty easement used by various property owners in the area to access their land.

That nameless dirt road is a good part of why I have set up a temporary office in my neighbor's home-in-progress. In order to get telephone and Internet service, mail, UPS deliveries, and just about anything else, we had to get our dirt road a name. On the surface it was a simple process, but in reality, it was long and slow. After weeks of waiting, it was through the intervention of a local that we finally were able to get a name and number. However, that is just the start of the effort to get phone and Internet (the only utilities we are going to get out here, as we're going with alternative energy sources for electricity).

There is a waiting list for everything. We recently learned that we won't have a landline -- thus no DSL -- until much longer than the 3 MONTH waiting period we were initially informed of. August 28 is now said to be the big day. And, although the satellite company sent our equipment a long time ago, we still don't have an install date. Never mind that they told us two weeks....

So, it looks like I'll be toting my computer stuff and generator over to my neighbor's to work for quite a while... Fortunately, it's so beautiful here in the high desert lands on the border -- I walk out of my currently humble abode and see clearly into our neighboring nation -- that these delays and hassles feel like small details in the grand scheme of things.

While things seem to move slowly in my part of the world, that doesn't seem to be the case in the rest of the world. Now that the psychological barrier of the $100 mark has been breached, the price of oil has been shooting up even faster. Last Friday, according to MarketWatch.com, the price per barrel touched $117. Food prices have also been moving up, some quicker than others. Rice has gone up astonishingly on the world market, causing major exporters to ban exports, as they fear that they will not be able to feed their own citizens. Some nations have even started to ban the export of wheat. News headlines from all over the world are full of the food crisis and riots in areas where rising prices are leaving the poor hungry.

Looking at all that is going on -- how quickly things are seeming to deteriorate in the global economy, the biggest names in the financial industries teetering on the brink of fiscal disaster, the rising cost of living -- it seems to me that this point in time is one in which all of us should be thinking seriously about debt reduction. The less debt we carry into the uncertain economic times that seem fairly sure to be a part of our future for a while to come the better.

And, on that note, I read a really interesting article on the Motley Fool the other day. It described how 0 percent balance transfer credit card offers can -- with discipline and commitment to a goal of debt reduction -- be a valuable tool in getting control of and eliminating credit card debt.

Many people use such offers unwisely and end up with a much greater debt burden or simply move debt around without ever really dealing with it. However, the smart consumer can really make out with such offers, using them as a means to really knock down the principal of their debt. Things out there in the economic world don't look like they are going to get better any time soon, making now a great time to act to reduce your debt. A glance to the left offers some great resources for 0 percent balance transfer credit card offers. Apply today and you may soon be able to put this debt reduction tool to work for you.

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Friday, April 18, 2008

Have I Got A Debt Reduction Plan For You!

This is the view that I enjoy during dinner today. (photo credit, David Secor) Click it if you'd like to see the full-sized version.

It's a big change from just a few months ago, where the dinner hour conversation was interrupted by deep bass thumping out of the speakers of passing cars and by the loud hip hop and reggae music streaming from the cars waiting outside of the local drug selling spots.

I no longer step out my door onto a sidewalk littered with wrappers and trash left by careless people passing by when leaving local businesses, legitimate and illegitimate. Instead, I am greeted by wide-open sky and an almost mystical natural beauty.

The children have more freedom than they've ever experienced. When they lived in the city, they weren't allowed to play out front without adult supervision. It was not safe. After a couple of exchanges of gunfire between neighborhood drug dealers, it was no longer safe to allow them to play in the backyard without supervision. Today, they run, they play, they explore. They see the night sky and countless stars, they see wildlife. They are learning so much and are having a wonderful time.

And, best of all, I've significantly reduced my debt burden and, as time goes on, will continue to lessen the amount of cash I need to spend on daily living -- certainly a good thing with all the turbulence and trouble in the realm of economics. Not only is the United States struggling, but the world as well. Major exporting nations banning the export of rice and of wheat, oil prices skyrocketing, food costs rising, the dollar dropping in value... the list goes on and on. Clearly, it is a good time to consider debt reduction, with a goal of debt elimination, and the building of a more sustainable lifestyle.

Oddly enough, reducing my debt burden began with taking on more debt -- $20,000, to be exact. However, this debt is productive debt, very productive indeed. The concept of productive debt versus consumptive debt is a bit of an old-school notion. Though, I suspect that, as these easy credit, no money down, buy now pay later, no doc loans days come to an end, that old-fashioned, old-school notion will soon be back in style, at least among the smart set.

So, what did I get for my $20,000 no credit check, easy terms debt? The one that I pay back at a rate of $360 per month? The one that, if I pay the principal all off within the year, becomes significantly less, as the interest charges that bring it up to $20,000 will be waived? (And, I will!) I got 46 acres of land, in a warm and sunny climate perfect for relying on solar power, in a region with winds that make wind power an attractive alternative to more traditional energy sources. I got space for food growing and home building. I got a lifestyle that -- immediately upon my arrival, before anything was set up at all -- dramatically reduced my living expenses.

In NY, the last heating bill I paid for my apartment in the two-family house I shared with my sister was just over $600 and that was for the month of December. I have no heating bill here, but I do have a lovely tan. The monthly land payment is less than the amount I gave my sister monthly for my half of the mortgage on the house. (We got rid of that when we came here.) Those are just a couple of the quick and easy ways that I've experienced a reduction in my living expenses.

In the weeks to come, you can expect to read more about my adventures in working towards a debt-free and richly economical lifestyle. I look forward to sharing the details of my personal debt reduction plan and my progress in making it happen. I hope that some of my experiences are useful to you, helpful in your efforts to achieve your own debt and lifestyle goals.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Debt Reduction -- Why It Is So Important To Do Now

Our Grand Debt and Cost of Living Reduction Adventure was inspired by a variety of factors. While some were personal, such as having more time to enjoy our children, others were strictly financial. My financial reasons were based on looking at the big economic picture. I've been watching global economics for about 4 years now. (Yes, I realize that I have strange hobbies.) And, the big picture tells me that getting out of debt and getting spending under control is very important right now.

By now, most are familiar with the mortgage and lending meltdown and its closely associated foreclosure crisis. Foreclosures are occurring at rates that haven't been seen since the Great Depression. Many of the foreclosures have to do with loose lending practices, and practices that some define as predatory, which resulted in people getting mortgages who wouldn't have been approved under more standard lending practices, due to the risk of default. Another aspect of the foreclosure crisis has had to do with teaser rates and adjustable rate mortgages. As the rates increased and the monthly mortgage obligation climbed, people struggled to make their payments.

Easy loans fueled a housing bubble, with prices going up, up, up. Many home prices reached incredible levels, and homeowners borrowed against these inflated values, pushing themselves further into debt. While lenders were engaging in riskier loans, they were also selling those debts to investors in various forms of mortgage or debt backed financial instruments.

As more people default on their loans, those investors are losing their money, and getting scared of that particular investment market. The wave of foreclosures has slapped house prices back into the realm of reality, reducing the value of homes throughout the nation. In fact, the affect of our mortgage and lending crisis has touched housing and credit markets throughout the world, not only through international investment, but also by setting off small housing bubbles elsewhere.

Homeowners, holding mortgages based on inflated values, are all too frequently finding themselves with a mortgage that is greater than the current value of the property. Lenders are writing down billions in debt and struggling, some unsuccessfully, to stay afloat. With more ARMs due to reset in coming months, the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better, and the big banks and other lenders are scrambling to find a way to shore up the foundation of the industry, before the next wave crashes, shaking that foundation loose and threatening the current banking system to its core.

There are two potential waves in view. Credit card debt is at an all time high. Unfortunately, delinquencies are starting to creep up to heights that haven't been seen in quite a while. Credit card companies are starting to experience significant losses. And now, according to recent news, it seems as though the auto loan industry is entering into a similar phase. The situations with credit card and auto loan debt have an interesting factor in common with the mortgage situation -- those debts were also packaged as investments and sold to investors throughout the world.

But, wait, there's more. The value of the dollar is falling, and fast. The euro is just one currency that has experienced record heights in value when measured against the shrinking worth of the dollar. The increase in fuel prices is affecting the price of everything. Food and other goods have to be transported throughout the nation, fuel is essential to the running of the factory farms we rely on to feed us. Much of the country is feeling the pinch of increased home heating costs. Inflation further eats away at the purchasing power of the dollar, and no matter how hard the government tries to hide it -- and they do that by manipulating the numbers in order to avoid cost of living increases for such things as Social Security -- at this point, even they have been forced to admit that the rate of inflation is climbing.

Those factors, in combination with the other fiscal problems they bring with them -- such as a slowing job market -- lead me to firmly believe that debt reduction now is essential to financial security and health. Carrying unnecessary debt in the face of all of the fiscal problems before us is just dangerous. Therefore, for us, reducing debt now and setting up a way of life that decreases our cost of living dramatically, such as being self-sufficient in our energy by using solar and wind, is of paramount importance, as that will help to ensure that we are able to better ride out the difficult economic conditions seem to be just over the horizon and fast approaching.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Falling Home Values and Urban Blight: The Start of a Grand Debt Reduction Adventure

urban blightAbout a decade ago, my sister and my mother bought a modest two family home together in a working-class neighborhood made up primarily of people that lived in the homes that they owned. Many of these people had been in the neighborhood for decades, and many were getting on in age.

Through the years, as the older folks passed away, their adult children would return from suburbia long enough to pack up a few mementos, sell what could be sold, leave the rest on the curb for the city trash collectors to dispose of, and turn the keys over to a realtor. A few kept the keys and joined the ranks of absentee landlords, as were many of those buying properties from the realtors.

Soon, we had strangers in our midsts. Drug dealers who were tired of the competition and danger of selling in New York City and preferred the relative calm and higher profits of the capital region made up a significant portion of the new arrivals. A neighborhood that once featured kids playing outside and neighbors who all knew each other, became one in which shootings happened. Stabbings happened. Drug and prostitution traffic were readily visible.

The children had to be taught how to adapt to the new environment. If you hear loud arguing, get in the house. If you see the police driving slow down the block, come in. No playing outside without one or more of the Great Danes keeping watch. Those are the rules for the back yard, they're never out front alone. A dispute between drug dealers ended up with a 12 year old getting grazed by a stray bullet a couple of summers ago.

Property values, naturally, declined. My mother passed away and I took over her half of the two-family home. And, my sister and I started to think. We thought about: over $900 per month for the mortgage, almost four thousand a year for property tax, and heating costs of more than $500 per flat per month during the heating season. All for a place in which we were, really, no longer happy.

Our situation was this: with kids and an assortment of pets that includes Great Danes upstairs and downstairs, her cats, my mother's birds, which I had to take custody of after her death, as they would not survive my sister's cats, and my nephew's turtle, we have no choice but to own. Selling the house leaves us with no start up capital to buy another home, as the property values have dropped and we have debts remaining from the period of time after my mother's stroke, when her health insurance ran out, until we could make other arrangements for her health care costs. Credit scores were damaged in the struggle to make sure my mother had her medicine during the period she was without health coverage.

And, then, we came up with a plan. Our grand debt and cost of living reduction adventure. Sell the house, eliminate the lingering debt, get a fresh start. Buy a tract of land, and set up our homes to run off the grid, using solar and wind power, reducing our expenses greatly. Invest our efforts and our money into being as self-sufficient as possible, including food production. The goal is to eliminate debt and reduce cash outlay, which will, in turn, allow us to reduce the time spent working and increase the time spent enjoying our children and our lives. After all, children grow so fast, too fast, and all too soon there will be plenty of time for 60 hour weeks again.

We are currently in phase one -- wrapping up the details of the house, packing up, and putting things in storage until we are ready for them. The motor home is parked out front, awaiting the beginning of our journey to make our new home in much warmer weather. We expect to leave NY during the first week of February and I look forward to sharing the details of our grand debt and cost of living reduction adventure with you as we experience it through the weeks and months to come.

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