Some things you can easily neglect or forget without causing any harm, such as what the last two answers are in the crossword puzzle today; but you cannot do that to a debt. Debt stays like a recurring nightmare in the night, haunting us and chasing us like Mr. Anderson in a Matrix world, charging compounded annual rates of 20% or more of monthly interests. We are stuck in that world’s system – with no escape in sight. But there is a way out of debt, using our free debt-crushing strategies -- and with the help of some of your rich friends and wealthy relatives (see tip No. 5). The nine ways to escape this enslaving system follow:
1. Exceed your monthly dues
The first step toward freedom from debt is to pay above the demanded minimum monthly payment. Do not extend your burden of paying the usual 2% to 3% of the outstanding balance for the required payment term. Moreover, banks would enjoy such subservience, even wishing you would pay for longer terms to increase their profits. Tell yourself now that it is time your own happiness is your priority, not the banks.
The strategy is to pay as much as you can afford regularly for every month. For instance, if your minimum amortization is $200, make it $150 or 200 even more. Try to look into your daily or monthly expenses to see where you can get the extra money. (To find some tips on how to do this, read our Living Below Your Means discussion forum.) For example, minimize or eliminate dining out and cook at home. Desserts are things we can do without, if you think about it. Happy hours would not be so happy if you think you have a debt to pay off. "Luxuries", in short, are things you can do without and are rich sources of hard cash.
The operative word (as in, you need to get it out of your system through some form of mental surgery) is “sacrifice”. Then, you will find a way to drastically up your debt amortizations. It is the best way to save valuable money that would go into paying interests. Moreover, you will have a faster way of escaping your “debtly” situation. There is no joy in that kind financial crisis, having to live in constant penury and fear.
2. Snowball your debt payments
If you have credit cards, think seriously of how you can win some more points. Which one gives the lowest rate of interest? If you have not gone beyond the highest amount allowed on that card, try moving your higher-interest bill to it. This is allowable in most cases. Why pay 18% if you can pay only 12%?
In case your total credit balance does not fit on your low-interest card, pay at least the minimum amounts required for all cards except for one. You can then transfer most of your debt repayments into that one credit card, and do it as fast as you can. Once the balance on that card is zero, transfer the next by applying the same rapid repayment scheme.
This is what “snowballing” means – one small step at a time until you accomplish more. While the debt is decreasing, the money you will need to undo your debt will increase. The money you use to pay off “snowballs” until your debt disappears. You see how easy it is?
One alternative means of moving higher-interest debt to a lower-interest card involves the use of promotional offers from banks which provide credit card facilities. Note such ads offering to "Transfer all your credit card balances” to them at only “5.9%" for a period of a year. Why not? 5.9% is far beneficial to you than 18% interest. It would be unwise not save all that money in interest which could be funneled to reduce the principal every month, effectively decreasing the outstanding debt balance even more.
But think before you bite into any offer. Check properly the details for any possible catches. For instance, find out whether the interest rate will remain at the offered rate after the introductory period expires or revert to what you pay now. This would mean changing again and other possible surprises along the way. Banks have become wary of credit card holders who jump from one card to another to avail of the low introductory interest rates. Many such offers now stipulate that once you move outstanding debts from the new card within a year, the regular interest rate will revert retroactively to all outstanding balances. That stipulation might come as a big burden to bear for cash-strapped individuals, giving no relief whatsoever. The fine print tells it all – if you can read patiently.
3. Withdraw your savings account
You can decide to withdraw your savings and investments and slowly pay off your debt using the proceeds. It might appear unwise; yet, sometimes one has to play the fool to survive. Even at 12% rate, your investments would need to bring in above 18% before paying all taxes to match the dollars flowing out. Besides, the money in your savings account will not earn you close to that rate of interest. Terminating the debt this way, amounts to achieving that 18% gain, minus any risks involved otherwise. The greater the interest rate you pay, the more desirable repayment becomes against any existing investment.
4. Take out a loan using your life insurance policy
Does your life insurance policy provide a cash value? Then, make us of it by borrowing your own money. The interest rate is usually way below commercial rates; and you can have longer terms to repay the loan. Be sure you pay it faithfully. In case you die prior to repaying the debt, the remaining loan balance and interest will be taken from policy’s face value due to the beneficiary. Indeed it is a small burden to carry now to try to remove a debt than allowing your loved ones to carry the burden, if you leave them permanently before paying it back.
5. Persuade family and friends for help
There must be a relative or friend who trusts you and cares enough to reach out to you with a helping hand. If so, you stand to get a loan at a bargain rate with less pressure on the payment schedule. In order to keep your relationship intact, frame up a formal agreement on paper to clarify expectations on either side as to interest and repayment scheme. This will do away with any hurt feelings or doubts in the future. And try to stick to the agreement if you want to remain welcome at family, office or school events.
6. Acquire a home equity loan
If you have a home whose equity has piled up over the years of paying the mortgage, why not get a home equity loan (HEL) credit facility at the highest allowable amount?
There are two ways that a HEL can help you save: first, applying the loan amount to your debt repayment, which allows you to exchange an 18% loan, for example, for a 6%-7% loan; second, itemizing deductions when you file your income tax credits HEL interest as a deductible item in most instances. A 25% marginal tax bracket will provide the 6% loan an effective rate of 4.5%, which is probably the best deal you can get on a personal debt.
Avoid, however, the common pitfall of getting an HEL, paying out your current debt and then ringing up credit card charges once again. That will give you two birds to shoot at with a single bullet, since you cannot afford another bullet to solve both challenges. Avail of HEL to erase your credit card debts, and then pay off HEL as well. Makes you appreciate your dire situation and the meaning of the saying, “There’s HEL to pay!”
7. Avail of a loan through your 401(k)
If you have a 401(k) retirement plan, yours may have a facility for loans up to 50% of your account's value, or $50,000, whichever is smaller. Usually, the rates are one or two points above prime, making them lower what credit cards charge. This makes 401(k) plan loans a way to pay off your debts. The best thing about this scheme is not just the lower interest but that you pay it back to your account as each dime paid on interest goes straight to the borrower's 401(k) account and not the lender's.
The downside on this plan includes the following: first, you repay the loan and interest with after-tax dollars, and the interest will be subject to tax again when you finally withdraw money from the 401(k) in the future. Moreover, the loan repayment period is five years. Leaving your work before repaying the whole loan will, therefore, require you to immediately pay off the loan. If not, that amount will be considered as a distribution to you and subject to tax at regular rates. And in case if you are below 59 and one-half years old, an additional 10% excise tax will be charged as penalty for cashing out your retirement funds early. Hence, make certain your 401(k) loan can be fully paid prior to leaving your job.
8. Restructure your loans
Are you at your rope’s end? No savings left. Friends and relatives cannot be of help. You do not own a home or a 401(k) account to loan against. In short, you are wiped out and you consider filing for bankruptcy. Wait! Hope always shines in the darkest places. Ironically, the prospects of bankruptcy can be of use to you.
If your creditors become aware of your situation and that you cannot renegotiate, your only recourse is to declare bankruptcy. You may seek a lower repayment term; ask for a lower interest rate; and satisfy their demand for payment. Creditors, more often than not, will choose to receive any deal where they get to recover some of their investment rather than nothing at all.
The transaction table is always open to a reasonable compromise where everyone wins and no one loses anything. It is worth a try and in time you will realize such recourses do work for the best. There are even organizations which will do it for you, in case you are not sure what you need to do.
9. Final option: Declare bankruptcy
If it comes down to the last option you have left, file for bankruptcy. As much as we all want to pay our debts, sometimes repaying is not at all possible. But be aware of the consequences.
For ten years, you will have a credit record with this bankruptcy information, making it hard for you to acquire a loan for that long. Furthermore, it is ironic that filing for bankruptcy requires a lot of money. Hundreds of dollars of lawyer fees and court filing expenses have to be met to get the relief you seek. With tougher bankruptcy laws in the offing as well, you might end up not obtaining any relief at all.
Two kinds of personal bankruptcy relief are available: Chapter 7 and Chapter 13. Chapter 7, called straight bankruptcy, provides almost total relief from debts, not including such items as alimony, taxes, child support, loans acquired through filing false financial records, loans not included in the bankruptcy petition, student loans and legal decisions against the petitioner.
Although Chapter 7 frees you of the duty of paying back most creditors, you may need to give up a big part of your property to partially pay off the debt. Nevertheless, some states have different laws providing exemptions on particular types of property, for instance, a specific amount of home equity, an old or low-value vehicle, minimal worth of jewelry and other personal belongings, and tools used in the pursuit of one’s business or occupation. Although such exemptions are quite small, no one will need to start over from zero.
Chapter 13, also referred to as the "wage-earner plan," is quite different. You can hold on to your property but give up all financial control to the bankruptcy court. The court recommends a repayment scheme based on your financial capability for paying off all or part of your debt for period of 3 to 5 years, during which creditors cannot harass you for any payment. You are also free of any interest charges on your debts during that period. Once the requirements of the court-approved scheme have been satisfied, you come out debt-free from the bankruptcy.
This article is based on a David Braze article with a few revisions.