As you remove decorations and pack away the tree, it’s likely that bills from your holiday shopping spree are starting to pour in. About 15% of consumers in the United States carry total credit card balances of more than $10,000, according to myFICO, the consumer division of Fair Isaac Corp., creators of the FICO credit-risk score. If you’re struggling to pay down credit card debt, you have the power to negotiate better terms. And it’s as simple as picking up the phone and calling your creditors.
“There is no credit that can’t be restored,” says Brenda Freeman, CEO of Brenda Freeman and Associates, a private credit counseling company in Houston. Freeman says many consumers feel intimidated by their creditors and bullied by collection agencies. The truth is, your creditor can be your ally. There are hardship deferments if you’ve lost your job, gone through a divorce, or experienced an illness or a death in your family. Some creditors will even waive interest-rate and late-charge fees while you’re experiencing a financial hardship.
Latonia V. Moss, professor of speech communications at Baltimore City Community College, has a history of poor credit management that dates back to her 20s. Now 42, Moss’ wake-up call came after her divorce a few years ago. “I wanted to buy a home for me and my son, but my credit score was in the 400s and my finances were in shambles,” she says.
Moss took additional jobs to supplement her income so that she could pay off a $3,000 credit card debt. She also ordered her credit reports and carefully reviewed each one. Much to her dismay, closed accounts that were in default but had been paid were still on her report. After sending proof of payment, Moss called her creditors and asked them to remove the negative items. She also made consistent, timely payments on existing debts. Within two years, Moss’ score rose 200 points. Now that she has her debt under control, she’s in a position to request lower interest rates.
“Your credit score is used to determine interest rates you’ll pay on any lines of credit, insurance, mortgages, and car loans,” says Freeman. She suggests being proactive by viewing your credit report for errors such as debts that have been paid off but are still showing an outstanding balance on the report. “Because most creditors won’t take these items off your credit report, you must contact the credit bureau in writing to let them know that you have paid off these debts.” Freeman advises clients to negotiate a settlement with creditors directly first before going through an agency. “If you work with a debt-consolidation agency, you may incur a fee,” she says. Whichever option you choose, be sure to always ask for a written agreement before any payments are made. The rewards can be sweet. Freeman negotiated a $4,000 payoff for a $10,000 debt for one of her clients.
It’s important to manage your finances like a business, says Cheryl Creuzot, CEO and president of Wealth Development Strategies