To hear the media tell it, Americans are basket cases when it comes to borrowing. The average credit card balance per person is nearly $4,000. College grads who leave school with student loans typically owe more than $19,000. Home foreclosure rates are soaring and threatening the economy as a whole.
The truth is, most Americans manage their credit just fine. And for those who are sinking in red ink, there are plenty of life preservers. Learn how five people we interviewed in late 2007 got on top of their debt—and how they plan to stay there.
Cindy Campbell got hooked on credit cards in college, and within two years she owed $7,000. By the time she graduated, she was missing payments, paying over-limit charges, and being hit with punitive interest rates.
In 1999, Campbell, who lives in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, signed up for a debt-management program. She paid a lump sum to a credit counseling agency, which distributed the money to six credit card companies. At the same time, she cut her spending drastically. "When I was paying off my debt, I hardly ever went out," says Campbell, 27. "But it was worth it. I started to realize how good it feels to pay something off."
Good counseling agencies will review your finances and set up a budget free-of-charge. If appropriate, the agency will enroll you in a debt-management program, like Campbell's, which can lower your interest rates and wipe out penalties. You shouldn't pay more than $50 to set up such a program, and then no more than 5 to 7 percent of your monthly payment as an ongoing fee, says Todd Mark of the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Atlanta, Georgia.
Credit counseling agencies are funded by credit card companies, so they benefit if you enroll. But don't do it if you can't afford to keep up the payments. "We won't accept people for these programs unless they can pay off their bills in 60 months," says Mark.
Campbell was free of debt, including a car loan, in three years, and she has never looked back. When a promotion doubled her salary, she began saving for a home down payment, and took steps to improve her credit score. She bought a house in 2005 at age 25, and qualified for a 6 percent mortgage.
When she ran up a credit card balance paying for renovations to the house, she called her two credit card issuers to see which had the better balance transfer offer, and found one for 5.99 percent. Recently, she again called her card issuer, told the service representative that she was a long-time customer who pays her bill faithfully, and managed to get a rate of 7.99 percent. "Working to get out of debt takes serious discipline," says Campbell. "But it gives you more freedom."
While visiting her mother in the hospital in 2004, Susan Hollifield complained of a terrible headache, then collapsed. Diagnosed with a brain aneurysm, Hollifield was flown to Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina for surgery, and remained in the intensive care unit for a month, followed by nearly a year of rehabilitation.
While Susan's husband, Dwight, spent long hours with his wife, their mailbox filled up with medical bills that eventually totaled about $500,000— including a single hospital bill for $174,000 that the Hollifields thought they were obliged to pay.
Dwight was prepared to withdraw the money from the couple's retirement accounts, which would have cost him and Susan thousands of dollars extra because they were in their mid-fifties at the time—too young to tap their accounts without paying taxes and penalties.
Then Dwight consulted Pat Pane of Medical Insurance Assistance in Wilmington, North Carolina. Pane is a claims assistance professional who charges $92 an hour to help clients organize their bills, find errors and plead their case with insurers.
Working with her daughter, Kimberly Ayers, Pane discovered mistakes in the Hollifields' bills. For instance, part of the $174,000 claim had been denied because Susan was admitted to the original hospital under a different version of her name than the one in her insurance records. Ayers got the insurer to reprocess the claim and slash the bill. She and Pane also managed to lower a $35,000 tab for rehabilitation to $81 by filing an appeal, and documenting that the level of care was medically necessary. "It made tens of thousands of dollars' worth of difference to us," says Dwight. The Hollifields, who live in Bostic, North Carolina, ended up paying $6,000 out-of-pocket.
The lesson: Don't write a check until you're sure the charges are correct. "Once you pay the bill, you lose your negotiating power," says Pane.
And you often have leverage to ask doctors and hospitals to reduce the bill, especially if you have a lump sum that you can divide among several providers. They may be willing to accept a reduced amount now rather than worry about collecting full payment later.
If they're not willing to negotiate, set up a payment plan. Hospitals will often let you spread payments over 12 months—a much better option than incurring interest fees by charging medical bills on your credit cards.
Like many newly-minted professionals, Lisa Virani started her law career in 2004 with a significant amount of debt from both her undergraduate education at the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Indiana, and law school at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
The average law school grad racks up more than $70,000 in loans; the average medical school graduate owes more than $110,000. Virani diligently made all her payments on time, but at the rate she was going she would still have been in debt at age 50.
After two years at that pace, she met with Dan Joss, a financial planner in Reston, Virginia, who recommended that Virani prioritize her loans based on their interest rates. She's making extra payments on high-rate loans and will pay off one private loan with a 9 percent rate by the end of this year—eight years early. But she's making the minimum payments on the government-sponsored Stafford loans she consolidated at a super-low rate of 2.65 percent.
Meanwhile, Virani, 28, isn't neglecting other financial goals. She has an emergency fund, so she doesn't need to charge unexpected expenses on her credit cards. Plus, she's maxing-out contributions to her 401(k) plan and is saving for a down payment on a house. "Having a plan to pay off my student loan debt and save for other big expenses is great," says Virani, who lives in Arlington, Virginia. "Otherwise, I'd probably still be making minimum payments."
Recent grads sometimes feel overwhelmed by debt, but they're actually in a better position than they think. Leisa Aiken, a planner with Timothy Financial Counsel in Chicago, Illinois, usually puts doctors, lawyers and other young professionals on a five-year plan. They pay a big chunk of money toward student loans before adjusting their lifestyle to their higher post-graduate income. "They've just come from being students," says Aiken. "If they can live like students for a few extra years, they can pay off most of their student loans by age 30."
You don't necessarily need a high income to achieve that goal. For example, volunteering for AmeriCorps qualifies you for an education award of $4,725 a year for two years to help pay for student loans—and some colleges match the award. Stefan Reinold, 34, a former AmeriCorps volunteer, received $9,450 in education awards that paid off a big chunk of his $12,000 in undergraduate loans, and helped him afford a master's degree in forestry. He's now a self- employed forestry consultant in Wheat Ridge, Colorado.
Four years ago, Janet Richard switched from a 7 percent fixed-rate mortgage on her Fort Lauderdale, Florida townhouse which she bought in 1999, to an Adjustable Rate Mortgage (ARM) at 3.25 percent. That low rate lasted for four years, then rose to 5.5 percent. It was about to jump to 7.5 percent.
Richard, 64, would have had a tough time paying an extra $300 per month, and she didn't want to worry about her rate continuing to rise. "My mother is 93, so I need to prepare to be around for a while," says Richard.
Despite the turmoil in the mortgage market, Richard had a big advantage: a good credit record. Shopping with a mortgage broker, she qualified for fixed-rate loans at about 6.5 percent. Her current mortgage company offered a competitive rate, which saved her more than $1,000 in closing costs.
If you have an ARM, monitor what may happen to your rate at the next adjustment and compare the new payments with those you can qualify for on a fixed-rate loan. Then calculate how long it would take for your monthly savings to make up for closing costs and any prepayment penalties. "If the break-even point is one year, that's great," says Mari Adam, a financial planner in Boca Raton, Florida. "Two years is good, too. And if refinancing gets you out of an insecure loan, it may be worthwhile to switch to a fixed rate even if you won't break even for three or four years."
If you have good credit and you're borrowing $417,000 or less, "it's really quite easy to get a fixed-rate loan," says Chris Smith, president of Capstone Mortgage in Lexington, Massachusetts. "You can still lock in a fixed rate of about 6.4 percent."
But expect to pay rates in the high 7 percent range if you have a jumbo mortgage larger than the $417,000 cutoff at which Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are willing to purchase loans from lenders. It's tough for banks to resell jumbo loans to investors at the moment, so Smith recommends either breaking the mortgage into two smaller loans, or taking out a longer-term ARM. You can lock in a rate of 6.75 percent on a seven-year jumbo ARM, says Smith.
And in the current climate, you may not be able to refinance at all if you don't have good credit. In that case, talk with your lender before missing any payments. The lender may be willing to lower your interest rate or otherwise modify the terms of the loan. Depending on your mortgage balance and the housing market in your area, it might be best to try to sell.