Last week, we talked about what to do if you have a good, but not great credit score – about how to subtly raise your score into the upper echelon. But what if you have justifiably terrible credit? What if you’re more like those people who rack up $20,000 in debt on nine cards and have to move in with their parents for a couple of years to pay it off?? Or maybe not quite that bad, but still… Well, there is help:
1. First, you’re not alone. A lot of people have this problem, this was, after all, part of what this nationwide financial mess was about. The key is to get it straightened out now, rather than later. Why? Well, credit reports (unless you file for bankruptcy), only go back seven years. So, if you overdid it in college, and you’re twenty-two right now, you can have a relatively clean credit score by the time you’re twenty-nine. And that’s about the time when you might start thinking about buying property or taking out large loans – which is when having good credit is most important.
2. Talk to a Credit Counselor. Most states and/or municipalities provide this service. There are also non-profits that provide free counseling. (For example, here is a list provided by the State of Illinois of some credit counselors.) Just be sure that you’ve vetted the counselor’s organization, so that you’re sure they’ll have your best interest at heart. The counselor will be able to go over your particular finances and come up with a plan.
3. Consolidate Your Debt. If you do some research and talk with a counselor, you may be able to find a company that will give you a loan to pay off your credit card bills. Usually, this is a good idea. Think of it this way: if you have six credit cards with outstanding balances, with interest rates ranging from 11% to 18%, you’re paying a lot of interest each month. If a company is willing to pay all the debts for you and offers you an opportunity to pay them back at a rate of 7%, you’re going to save a lot of money. That means you’ll get out from under this mountain sooner.
4. Cancel Your Credit Cards. As you pay each one off, cancel your credit cards. Not all of them, by try to get it down to two or so oldest ones. (Why keep the oldest? Because your credit score is better the longer you have managed credit.) That way you have less clutter and less temptation. Also, as you’re paying them off, if you can’t consolidate your debt, focus on paying off the card with the highest interest first. This way, you’ll be charged that rate for the least amount of time possible.
5. Sacrifices Will Have to Be Made. If you have thousands of dollars of credit card debt, you’re not going to be able to pay it back quickly or easily. It will require sustained commitment, and lower spending. This will be particularly hard because (presumably) you’ve been used to springing for too many amenities (and hence your crippling debt now.) Some things that cost a lot of money that you could do without: cable television, vacations that involve hotel stays, fancy dinners out, new clothes (at least, not nearly as many), and that’s just a start. Really sit down and analyze where all your money goes, and figure out what your personal sinkhole is. Also, if you live in a city with decent public transportation, you may consider selling your car. Between maintenance, gas and insurance, cars are a huge drain on the finances. Also, where you live is important. If you’re currently paying more than 35% of your gross income towards your apartment, you should probably downgrade. It stinks, I know, but think of it this way: if you can find an apartment that’s $150 a month cheaper, you’ll be saving $1,800 a year. That can go towards paying off your debt.
6. Work Evenings. If you can swing it, working at a restaurant or retail store as a second job for two or three nights a week can help immensely. If you do this, devote all of this take-home pay to paying off your debt. By adding to your income as well as decreasing your spending, you’re attacking the problem from both sides.
So, if you have debt problems, you can do it, but it won’t be easy. Hard work, sacrifice and patience are the ingredients. Good luck!