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Barely making payments: Now what?

If you're facing a massive amount of credit card debt and you're having difficulty paying even the minimum due, you do have options.

By MSN Money Partner Apr 16, 2013 2:25PM

This post comes from Stacy Johnson at partner site Money Talks News.

Money Talks News logoHere's a reader note I recently received. It's long, but because it describes the situation of so many people I've heard from, it's worth reading. It says:

Image: Worried Man (© Corbis)

I have just recently started reading your Money Talks News and I'm pretty impressed with what I see.
Do you have any advice for people who are deeply in debt, but who can (only) afford the minimums on their cards? I've been trying to help my brother, who's made some questionable decisions and is deeply in debt. He's let me go through his finances and I started by helping set up a budget for him. It works, sort of.
The problem is, every time he starts getting his savings accounts up and making headway, something happens that drains them. He's getting very depressed and it's starting to take a toll on his marriage. The latest was the transmission went out on his car, which just drained all of the savings he had acquired over the last year.
He makes enough to make the payments on his house and debts without falling behind, but he can barely afford to pay over the minimums. He would kill me for sharing this, but I'm at the end of my knowledge.
He doesn't want to file bankruptcy because his job is moving him and he'll need to set up a new place to live when he gets there. Bankruptcy would look terrible on his record. What are some ways, in addition to budgeting better, that he can dig his way out of his crippling debt? A bunch of 0% interest credit cards to transfer to? Just stop paying all except one of them until it's paid off and then go down the line?
Just for reference: He has two car loans, total payment $500 per month, three years left on each; six different credit cards, $1,100 per month. Total amount owed (on credit cards): $32,500. That $1,600 is half of his paycheck. His wife also brings in about another $1,000 a month after child care.
Thanks in advance for your advice!
-- Matthew

Here's your answer, Matthew.

When half your income is going to credit card and car debt, it's unlikely you're going to budget your way out of this mess. There are two ways I'd suggest to get out from under these credit cards.

Credit counseling

If you're having trouble making payments, one option is a reputable credit counseling agency. They'll gather the details of your financial life, then help you figure out what to do. If you can pay your bills with your existing income, they'll tell you. If you can't, they'll probably suggest a debt management plan, or DMP.

When you enter into a DMP, the agency contacts your creditors. They make collection calls stop, possibly get some interest rates reduced and fees eliminated, and help you prepare a repayment plan you can live with. For example, if you're now paying $1,100 a month but can only afford $800, you'll send the agency $800 every month and they'll divide it among your creditors.

When using a DMP, you'll agree to completely stop using credit cards. These plans typically take three to five years to complete.

The vast majority of credit counseling agencies are nonprofit and free. Debt management plans, however, aren't free. You'll normally pay a monthly fee of $25 to $50, although that can be waived if you can prove hardship.

Warning: There are bad apples in this business, so you need to be careful selecting one. You'll generally be safest if you stick with agencies that are members of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling or the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies.   Both these organizations' websites can hook you up with a counselor in your area.


In a story I did a few years back, a  lawyer I interviewed offered some simple advice: If you don't have enough income left after eating and putting a roof over your head to make even minimum payments on your debts, it's time to talk to a lawyer.

Bankruptcy comes in two forms: Chapter 7, where most debts are wiped out, and Chapter 13, where some of your debts will be repaid over time.

Bankruptcy isn't free; it typically costs $1,000 to $2,000. One way to raise the money is to divert the payments now going to credit card debts to the lawyer.

Some people hesitate to file bankruptcy because they feel morally obligated to repay what they borrowed. But while it's true you owe your creditors your best effort to meet your obligations, you don't owe them your health, your life, your sanity or your self-respect. If you've done your best, hold your head up and take the necessary steps.

Which should Matthew's brother do?

Matthew's brother should start by talking to a credit counseling agency. It doesn't cost anything and they may offer helpful advice. If he ends up on a DMP, problem solved. The DMP will show up on his credit history and could be viewed negatively by some potential future lenders. It will not, however, affect his credit scores.

Bankruptcy, of course, will radically lower his credit scores. But if that's the best course of action, the credit counseling agency should suggest it and he shouldn't hesitate to do it. Even if the credit counseling agency doesn't suggest it, it never hurts to talk to a lawyer. Initial consultations are often free.

And if pride gets in the way, consider this: If you owe $32,500 on credit cards and are paying $1,100 a month in minimum payments, you're probably paying interest of about 28%. Keep doing that and it will take about 40 years to pay it back. Along the way you'll pay $75,000 in interest.

Now assume you have the $32,500 wiped out in bankruptcy. Take those old $1,100 payments, invest them at 5%, and in 40 years you'll have $1.6 million. Earn 10% and you'll have $7 million.

I understand that Matthew's brother doesn't want a bankruptcy on his record. But when you compare being a slave to debt for 40 years with having millions in the bank, maybe it's not so bad.

Bottom line? If you're paying huge interest and are only able to make minimum payments, get help. Now.

If you can get your payments reduced with credit counseling, you'll end up repaying your debt, but at potentially lower rates and more manageable payments.

And if you're going to end up filing bankruptcy anyway, you're flushing $1,100 down the toilet every month -- money you could be using to take care of your future and your family.

Either way, enlisting professional help is going to do more than save money. It's going to replace helplessness with empowerment and stress with relief. Do it. You'll be glad you did.

More on Money Talks News and MSN Money:
Apr 16, 2013 3:24PM

Stupid advice.  His brother and/or wife need to get additional jobs and start paying down that debt that THEY racked up! How can one let credit card debt get that out of hand?  I don't get it.  Car payments?  Get rid of them and drive clunkers for awhile.  Can they downsize in house?  And they need to learn to live within their means so this doesn't happen again.   I don't understand why people feel they are entitled to buy things they can't afford and then expect bankruptcy to bail them out.  Those of us that can live within our means end up paying for that.  

Apr 17, 2013 9:21AM
There is nothing Worse than posters coming on a posting board and playing judge and jury about other folks lives after they have caught a bad break. Once folks are in their situation, it's pointless to talk about what they should have done. I assure they already know what they should have done.

Drive a clunker and not be certain of getting to work on time. Great advice, not. Drive a clunker and pay for constant repairs. Again, not getting to work on time. One thing you can't risk when you have huge debt, not getting to work on time. Companies are just looking for an excuse to can workers.

For all we know, this family could well afford what they initially bought. Life throws curves that can disrupt the best plans of mice and men. It's easy for folks like Blazer to throw stones, until something happens to him. Karma has a way of working it's way back to those that throw the most stones. Keep that in mind Blazer. 

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