What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of credit card debt? Maybe it’s maniacal company executives laughing as they toss the money earned on your interest up in the air. Or the stress involved in mapping out your payments toward debt freedom.
If you’ve been down in the trenches – deep in credit card debt, missing payments and accumulating multiple overdraft fees – maybe your first thought is of phone call after harassing phone call from collection agencies trying to get their money back.
In 2007, I was $3,500 in credit card debt, working full-time while going to school full-time and struggling to pay my bills. I couldn’t even make minimum payments on the six credit cards I had opened and maxed out to pay for my lifestyle. (Even though I was living like a student where cable and digs were concerned, I had a nasty shopping habit – clothes and new furniture were my weaknesses.)
It didn’t take long for companies to begin calling me, night and day, every hour on the hour. I answered before I caught on to the numbers. I began ignoring all phone calls from numbers I didn’t recognize, fearing they were from a nasty representative who wouldn’t be happy that I had borrowed money I couldn’t repay. I had just started dating my boyfriend. The collection agencies would start calling at 7 a.m., while we were still in bed. What could I tell him? That I had mishandled money? What would he think of me? Instead, I lied and told him I didn’t know who it was. But I knew.
I easily received 15 phone calls a day. Sometimes they would leave a voicemail, but I deleted it without listening. I was terrified, and I knew what they would say. They wanted their money, and they wanted it now!
I’ve heard people claim credit card companies can’t do anything but call you and after a while they’ll stop. (Those people obviously don’t know the destruction a poor credit card record can do to your credit report.) But the hourly reminder that I owed thousands of dollars at high interest rates was much more psychological torture than I could handle. The few times I’d accidentally answer the phone I’d cringe and hang up as soon as the person on the line asked, “Is [Red] available?”
Some good did come from the incessant calls. (Just don’t tell the collection agencies that!) I knew I couldn’t live in fear of my cell phone ringing, and I made a plan to rid myself of the debt. Here’s the advice I have for anyone who is being harassed by credit card companies:
1. Know your rights!
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, part of the Consumer Credit Protection Act, maps out practices that are prohibited by law. These include calling outside the hours of 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., failure to cease communication upon request, abusive or profane language and communicating with consumers at their place of employment when advised that it is prohibited by the employer. If a collection agency is not abiding by the law, let them know that you know your rights and will contact the Federal Trade Commission or your state attorney general if the abuse continues.
2. Try to prevent the harassment before it starts.
Unfortunately, I don’t share J. Money’s optimism all that often. ;-) Credit card companies know that their interest rates are outstanding and that many consumers will treat their cards as free money. You’re not the first person to go over your card’s limit or be unable to pay your bill. If you’re drowning in credit card debt, try to take the lead and call the companies before they call you! If you can call the company before they refer the debt to a collection agency, you may be able to work out a better payment plan. But if it’s too late for that…
3. Send a cease letter.
The easiest way to stop collection harassment is to write the collection agency a cease letter. Federal law requires collection agencies to stop their collection efforts after they receive a written request to stop. Keep a record of any letters and phone calls received after sending the cease letter.
4. Create a repayment plan.
Consider your current financial predicament and work out a repayment plan. Be as honest with yourself as possible. You’ll need a realistic budget to get out of this debt, and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel is better than blindly making minimum payments with no consideration to what your interest and credit card is really costing you.
5. Don’t avoid the calls.
I know from personal experience that it is tempting to plug your ears with your fingers and sing la-la-la-la when you see that all-too-familiar phone number pop up on your caller ID. But, really, it only adds to your stress and encourages them to continue calling. Instead, answer the phone!
6. Contact the creditor and negotiate.
Though I still envision executives throwing my hard-earned money up in the air, dancing around their desks and laughing greedily, the representatives are human. Most of them understand that emergencies happen, and sometimes things are beyond our control. By this point, you should have a kicka$$ budget in your hands and know exactly how much you can pay toward your balance each month. Avoid offering too much. You don’t want to make a deal that you know you can’t keep. If you do, you’ll end up right where you started. Instead, tell them honestly how much you can monthly pay for the foreseeable future. Ask for an interest rate reduction. (This rule is important whether you’re in over your head or not. Most companies will reduce your interest rate if they know it increases the odds of getting some of their money back. And no one wants to lose business to a company offering a lower interest rate.)
It took me a long time to make it through this list of six dos and don’ts. But when I did make the phone calls and accepted that I needed to do something to get out of debt, I felt such a giant weight lift from my shoulders. I had a plan. I was in control of my finances instead of those collection agencies. And that made all the difference.
This is a guest post from Red, a newbie personal finance blogger over at Girl with the Red Balloon. Her blog began as an attempt to stay money-conscious in a relationship and now includes tips and personal anecdotes on saving, budgeting, repaying debt and de-cluttering your home (and making money in the process, of course).