It's no secret that Americans are struggling financially. Massive layoffs, inflation, unaffordable healthcare, skyrocketing gas prices and hiked-up interest rates on credit card accounts are plunging millions of consumers to the brink of bankruptcy. However, many of the would-be bankrupt are turning to a less drastic solution to their debt problems: debt settlement.
A Super-Short History of Debt Settlement
Debt settlement is nothing new. It's simply an agreement between two parties to settle a debt for less than the outstanding balance. Lenders have been doing this for hundreds of years, but the modern American banking industry started formalizing the practice after many of their customers starting falling behind in the late 1980s and early 1990s. These banks setup separate departments with specially-trained negotiators who contacted delinquent customers and offered them a lower pay-off amount to fully settle an overdue account.
Shortly afterward, entrepreneurs set up companies to help negotiate the best possible terms for financially distressed consumers trying to settle their debts. This marked the birth of the modern debt settlement industry. Thousands upon thousands of consumers flocked to debt settlement websites seeking more information and enrollment into a debt settlement program and debt settlement's popularity as a bankruptcy alternative continues to grow.
There's good reason for debt settlement's popularity. For some, it can be the fastest and least expensive form of debt relief besides bankruptcy. According to most debt settlement company and information websites, a consumer may be able to settle all settlement-eligible debts for less than the full outstanding balance in less than three years.
Is Debt Settlement Right For You?
If you are struggling with your finances and looking down the cold barrel of bankruptcy, you should investigate debt settlement. However, debt settlement is not for everyone. So, you should try to fully understand how it works as well as the benefits and drawbacks of this debt relief option before enrolling into a debt settlement program or attempting to negotiate your own settlements. Here are some questions to ask yourself to help you gain this understanding.
1. Can I repay my debts?
If you can repay all of your debts in full, then you should. Debt settlement is only meant for people who are financially unable to fully repay their debts but who might be able to repay debts if the outstanding balances are reduced.
2. Am I experiencing a financial difficulty?
Not wanting to repay your debts is not a good reason to enter into debt negotiations and creditors often take financial hardships into consideration during negotiations. These hardships can include unemployment, loss of income, unexpected medical bills, illness or death in the family and divorce.
3. What kind of debts do I need to settle?
Debt settlement only works for unsecured debt, such as credit card accounts, medical debts and maybe some department store cards and other personal debts. Lenders historically do not negotiate or settle secured debts, such as home loans, automobile loans, student loans and other loans secured with collateral.
4. Can I save up and set aside some money each month?
While unable to fully repay your debts, you should be financially able to at least pay back a portion of your debts if you can save up and set aside some money each month. This amount should be less than the minimum monthly payments required by your creditors (if you can comfortable pay your minimum monthly payments, then debt settlement may not be right for you). However, even saving up and consistently setting aside this smaller amount each month will add up to a sum that you may be able to offer as a compromised payoff to settle a debt. It may take months, but if you are consistent and patient the funds will build up.
5. Can you function with a budget?
Being able to save up and set aside funds to pay off settlements will require you to operate within a tight budget. If you are not financially disciplined, then you should start learning how to be. Pursuing debt settlement is an honorable way to resolve a tough financial situation, but it does require discipline -- and this means budgeting.
6. How much do I care about credit?
The debt settlement process can be damaging to your credit. This is because the process results in missed payments and accounts often go into charge-off before being settled. If you prize your credit score more than being debt-free, then you should consider getting a second or third job so you can fully repay all your debts and skip the debt settlement option (assuming you can keep this up for several years until all your debts are paid). Otherwise, be aware that negative marks can remain on your credit report for up to seven years (except for bankruptcy, which can stay on your credit report for up to ten years). However, as the negative mark gets older, it has less impact on your credit score.
7. Do I want to avoid bankruptcy?
Debt settlement is really about helping you repay your debts based on your limited financial ability and keeping you out of bankruptcy, assuming you want to avoid bankruptcy. This is important, because some people don't mind the 10-year stain on their credit or the fact that they won't be able to file Chapter 7 bankruptcy again for another eight years. Some people may not have a house they are trying desperately to save or don't have to deal with the new provisions of the bankruptcy law that are designed to keep some people from filing bankruptcy. However, if the thought of filing bankruptcy doesn't sit well with you and you are struggling to get by, then debt settlement might be just what you need.
8. Can I separate myself emotionally from my debts?
If you pursue debt settlement, your creditors are not going to be happy with you because they want you to pay all of your debt, plus interest, plus fees and plus whatever other finance charges they can dream up. You might end up getting calls from debt collectors and some debt collectors can be downright nasty. They often use guilt to get consumer to pay debts, even if that consumers doesn't owe the debt or if the consumer doesn't have the ability to pay. So, consumers pursuing debt settlement need to disassociate themselves emotionally from their debts, read up on the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) and be vigilant about their goal to be debt-free.
9. Can I be patient?
We live in a culture of instant gratification. We expect our food to be prepared before we put the lids on our fountain drinks. Our mail has to absolutely be there overnight and we want our pizza in 30 minutes or less. Debt settlement doesn't work this way. It will most likely take several months before you save up and set aside enough funds to start offering settlements to a creditor and it may take weeks or even months of negotiations before a creditor agrees.
If you pursue debt settlement, you have options. There are many debt settlement companies to choose from and even law firms that will negotiate your debt settlements for you. However, you should definitely investigate any company you consider, whether or not they are a professional service company or a law firm. These companies will charge you a fee for their services, so be sure to compare how they charge to make sure you are getting the best deal. Also check with the Better Business Bureau to see how each company handles complaints. You should also only deal with companies associated with industry organizations, such as The Association of Settlement Companies (TASC) and US Organizations for Bankruptcy Alternatives (USOBA).
Of course, you can always negotiate debt settlements on your own. All you need is the right information and there are kits you can purchase to guide you through the process. Just do a search for "diy debt settlement kit" or "do-it-yourself debt settlement kit" and you should find an affordable kit that will show you how to settle your own debts without spending hundreds or thousands of dollars in professional debt settlement service fees.
Ultimately, how you resolve your debt issues is up to you. If you are in debt up to your eyeballs and struggling to make ends meet, then you should do something. Debt doesn't sit; it grows with interest and fees and every dollar you owe in interest is a dollar you don't have to pay towards rent, mortgage, food, education or family vacations. For your own personal and financial wellbeing, there's nothing like being debt-free.