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Money

The www.FedPrimeRate.com Personal Finance Blog and Magazine

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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Thursday, July 24, 2008

What Did You Do With Your Stimulus Check?

2008 Economic Stimulus PaymentMonths ago, when I first heard about plans for an economic stimulus payment that would go to all taxpaying Americans, I could not help but think of how political leaders in ancient Rome would offer free Bread and Circuses as a way of tricking Roman citizens into giving up their political freedoms. The people would remain fat and happy while the elite would make plans to send them off to fight wars of conquest, for the glory of Rome.

I can't help but think of the war in Iraq as "the circus," and the economic stimulus payments as "the bread." Of course, we don't even have to leave our homes to enjoy the circus these days. Just turn on the TV and the images are delivered to you free of charge, thoroughly sanitized and censored, of course.

I wonder if anybody turned down the stimulus payment. After all, the money is basically a loan from China to the American people, a loan that our grandkids will have to payoff. There must be at least some Americans who find this objectionable.

So, what did you do with your stimulus check? Me? The $600 I received didn't even cover my child support payment, but I was grateful for the assistance. Your comments are welcome.

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Was Paying Off My Student Loan Debt A Bad Idea?

Back in January 2008, I decided to payoff my student loan balance and be done with it. At the time, I wasn't too worried about draining my savings account, since business was good, and I felt that my business was more or less recession proof. I was paying 8% interest, and there was no way for me to consolidate to get a lower interest rate, because I had already consolidated with William D. Ford. (FYI: you can only consolidate student loan debt once, unless you go back to school and get more student loans.)

Here's what prompted me to payoff my student loan debt:


federal student loan statement


The above is a clip from the 2007 tax statement sent to me by the folks at William D. Ford. As you can see, since I consolidated, the amount I paid toward the principal was about the same as the amount I paid in interest. That just boiled my blood, and made me a little bit sick to my stomach. I'd been paying interest my whole life, and I was tired of it. This student loan debt was the only debt on which I was paying interest. I had an opportunity to rid my life of interest payments, so I took it.

Now, I'm beginning to wonder if paying off my student loan debt was a good idea. Yes, I know, you're asking yourself, "how the heck can paying off a huge debt be a bad idea?" It can be, if, like me, you are now working with a depleted savings account. I have learned -- the hard way -- that my business is not recession proof. In fact, I have learned that it is in fact very sensitive to economic conditions. This is the first time the economy has taken a hard spill since I began expanding my business back in 2003.

I had paid off my car note a few months previous to paying off William D. Ford, which did not help at all. At the time, I was very confident in my ability to maintain a steady and strong income. I got cocky, and now I'm paying the price.

Here's are the other directions I considered:

  • Keep paying ~$110 per month with 8% interest. Balance would be reduced to $0 in about 500 years.
  • Increase my monthly payment to reduce the time it will take to bring the balance to $0, and reduce the total amount I would have to repay. Of course, with this option, I still would have been burdened with an 8% interest rate.
  • Transfer the debt to a 0% credit card. A decent option, but with 2 significant negatives 1) Once the interest-free period ends, there is no way to guarantee that I'd be able to find another favorable 0% credit card deal to which I could transfer my balance. 2) Balance transfer fees. 18 months ago, finding a 0% credit card that doesn't charge a balance transfer fee was easy. With the onset of the economic slowdown and the global credit crunch, feeless deals have all but disappeared.

So, yeah, I'm hurtin' right now, but I'm still very glad that the debt is gone. I cannot put into words how satisfying it was to call William D. Ford to check my balance, and hear this.

So, how am I going to manage?

First, I'm going to petition the family court to have my child support payments reduced. My monthly payment is nearly $700 for one child, which is way too high considering my current income. The mother of my child and I recently canceled plans to send our daughter to an expensive, private school. The fees were just too high (~$8,500 per year.) That's too much for a child going into Kindergarten. Even if my current income was the same as it was one year ago, when I was making almost as much as a U.S. Senator, I'm 90% certain that I would have decided against sending her to that expensive school. Fact is, she's doing great in the subsidized private school she's attending now. She also goes to Kumon twice per week, which I can recommend to any parent who can afford the $200 per month (she is way ahead of her peers in math and reading, thanks in no small part to Kumon.)

Second, I'm going to cash out my whole life insurance policy and get a term life policy. Suze Orman has finally convinced me that whole life insurance is not the best way to go.

Third, I'm going to cutback on my food shopping. Thankfully, I stocked up on meat during the good times. I now have a deep freezer full of high quality meat that could last a year or so -- literally!
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If you can payoff your student loans, I say do it. Just don't payoff your car note within the same time frame! Comments welcome.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

FICO® Credit Score Rebounds to 804 After Hard Pull

Here's an updated chart of my FICO® credit score, provided by the folks at TransUnion:


Updated Chart of My FICO Credit Score - July 2008: 804


Here's a real life example of how applying for credit can affect your credit score. A dip of 8 points; a minor downgrade that lasted 2 months.

Earlier this year, I decided to open a new business credit card account, not because I needed the credit, and not because I needed to do a balance transfer to avoid paying interest. I opened up the new account because the credit crunch that began last summer and still persists today started to make me a bit nervous last winter. My business has suffered as a result of the economic slowdown, and no one knows for certain when a) the economy will return to substantial growth and b) when confidence will return to the banking system. So the new account is just a little insurance in case my situation gets really bad.

My understanding was that the ding associated with a hard pull on a credit report would last for about 6 months, so there's a chance that the reason my score rebounded so fast was due to some other unrelated improvement to my credit profile. Perhaps the rule is that a hard pull inquiry into my personal credit history for a business credit card application causes heartburn for only 1 or 2 months, whereas if it was for a personal card the ding would last longer. Just conjecture on my part: there's no way for me to know for sure.

Though applying for credit did cause my personal credit score to drop for a spell, the new account may bolster the credit rating of my business, because it's a new line that I most likely won't tap (debt to credit ratio is a big deal to lenders and, therefore, credit rating agencies.) I think I made the right decision, even though I read recently that having too many unused lines can have the opposite effect. My nascent business credit card account will lower the average age of my business credit lines, which can in turn hurt my business's credit rating. Hopefully, my other credit lines are old enough to provide enough weight to balance out the new account.

The credit line on my new card is generous -- much more than I was expecting -- but the interest rate associated with making new purchases is higher than I'm used to. Of course, it's a trade off, because if I need to use this card at some point, the debt I would incur would be unsecured, and that's something I really like. None of my personal or business assets are at risk, though if I hit rock bottom and defaulted for some reason, the bank would most certainly ruin both my business and personal credit ratings, in short order.

During my recent research into credit scores, I learned that:

  • There are many different types of soft pull inquiries.

  • Some banks perform credit-score-damaging hard pulls on credit reports when a customer applies for a checking and savings account. A commenter at CreditBloggers.com complained that his bank performed a hard pull every time his CD rolled over. Yikes!

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Friday, July 04, 2008

Dude Where's My Car?...Seriously

I woke up in a hurry knowing that I only had about 45 minutes to get ready. That's 45 minutes for my daughter and me to bath, dress, do our hair, eat, grab everything we needed and get out the door - not a second to waste or spare. We made it, but going towards the parking lot it took me a few seconds to realize that something was missing. I kept walking though because I was certain my eyes were playing tricks on me. Yet, when I reached our parking spot our truck definitely was not in it, nor was it anywhere else in the parking lot. Way to start the day.

My initial shock quickly turned to frustration once I realized what had happened. Our financing company (the powers hereby known as HSBC) had sent someone out to repo our truck, when just days before they were on the phone reassuring my husband that we would be in the clear as long as they got some kind of payment. I think back now and realize that when they were asking him to 'update' his information, they were actually confirming our address and then waited until the day he deployed to come out. So there I sat, husband having just left, a million things to do that day, no transportation, and certainly nowhere near the almost $3,000 I knew we owed on the note. Plus, I kept wondering how I was going to tell my husband that his prized Harley Davidson edition F150, that he had worked so hard for and loved more than me, was gone.

I had half a mind to let them keep it because we could never really afford the thing to begin with. I couldn't let it go though because they said there would be no repo if we could send a payment and make arrangements for the rest, which we did. I spend the rest of that first day making phone calls to see who had taken the truck, why, where it was and how much they would accept to at least get it back. It didn't really surprise me that I got the runaround and for some odd reason no one knew anything except that we owed them money. Day two was spent doing the same thing, this time with a little more success. The representative I was working with told me he could keep the truck from going up for auction, but the kicker was that I had to give him $2,000 and he could only guarantee the offer for two weeks. I thought that was outrageous since 1) they shouldn't have taken it to begin with after what they said and 2) if we could afford to give them that much then the note wouldn't be past due. Needless to say, day three was spent calling around and begging my family for money and luckily I was able to scrounge up what I needed. Day four, I called up the company and arranged for payment in hopes of having them release the vehicle back to me. Once this was done, they gave me the information for the impound lot and this is where the real fun began.

If you noticed, everything I just described took place over the course of about four days. The next day I went to the company that took the vehicle, paperwork in hand, thinking I was on the way to pick it up. Turns out that it wasn't there, and according to paperwork the company had on file it was transported to the auction lot in North Carolina two days after it arrived at their facility (we lived in Virginia at the time, about 4 hours away from where it was taken to). I don't think the word upset is enough to describe what I felt like at the time. After a verbal battle with the employees there, I was able to get about half of the contents of what was in the vehicle, information for the auction company, signed some papers and high-tailed it right back home to give a piece of my mind to Mr. HSBC representative. This guy assured me that the truck would be safe and kept from auctioning for two weeks, not knowing that while I was talking to him the first time, the vehicle was already on its way to another state. He proceeded to tell me that he had made me no promises and that my payment was good enough to keep the truck from actually being auctioned but not from being transported to the auction site. How much sense did that make, really? After some more time on the phone, he agreed to send over the necessary paperwork and it was up to me to and make sure all was well from there. By this time, it was the end of the business day so I had to wait yet another day.

First thing the following day, I called the auction company and went though the whole rigmarole to get the truck officially released and ready for pickup. To make a long story even longer, I was told that I had no authorization from the finance company to do anything and only the owner could come down and claim the vehicle (it was in my husband's name). So I had to contact the HSBC rep, once again, who had the nerve to tell me that he had NO IDEA that I had intentions to pick up the vehicle myself, which is why I didn't have any kind of authorization. I asked him how he figured I wasn't going to pick the vehicle up if I was the spouse of the owner, had paid him every dime we had, went through all that hassle and had previously informed him that the owner was away on a deployment. I shamefully admit that we argued about this for about 15 minutes before he transferred me to a supervisor at which point I just got off the phone. In the end, and after they received every piece of paperwork imaginable, had exhausted all their excuses and wasted enough time, I was able to get a friend of mine to take a road trip with me to go pick up the prize.

Here we are about a year later still struggling to keep up with these payments and wondering when they will strike again if we're even a day late. There's no convincing my husband to consider trading the truck for something more manageable because it's his and he's determined to get it paid off to show these people that he can. He financed it for about $28,000 and is paying $650/month with an interest rate well over 14.5%. No one will refinance with us for lower rates and payments, and no matter how much we pay it seems like the balance owed is always $2,000+. It's insane and there's no light at the end of this tunnel.

Cars and car loans are much more attainable these days, even with some bumps and bruises on your credit. A person could be denied for a $500 personal loan, but then turn around and get a $10-15K car loan (I can vouch for this from personal experience). This can be a positive advantage for those who really are in need but don't have the best credit record; yet it could also be a trap that causes people to dig themselves further into the hole with debt and no help or hope of getting out. The lessons to be learned here are always pay your bills on time, of course, but also never bite off more than you can chew. This way you stand less of a chance of running into a situation where you can't pay on something. When it comes to leasing and financing, always be aware of what you are getting yourself into by knowing and fully understanding the terms, rates, payments and any other important details and fine print.

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