If it feels like you’re drowning in a sea of debt, it can seem impossible to find a life raft. Getting a handle on who you owe, and how much money you owe them is an important first step to sorting out your personal finances. Even though this can be intimidating and might feel hopeless, by going through everything and letting it air out, you’ll be able to take some concrete steps towards moving past your debts. This article will give you some tips for taking the bull by the horn and sorting out your financial life.
Written by Attorney Amelia Niemi.
Updated July 22, 2020
If it feels like you’re drowning in a sea of debt, it can seem impossible to find a life raft. Getting a handle on who you owe, and how much money you owe them is an important first step to sorting out your personal finances. Even though this can be intimidating and might feel hopeless, by going through everything and letting it air out, you’ll be able to take some concrete steps towards moving past your debts.
This article will give you some tips for taking the bull by the horn and sorting out your financial life.
The first thing you should do is get yourself organized. It won’t help if you know that you owe your credit card $X and have a medical bill of $Y if you don’t somehow keep track of these accounts in a way that you can reference later.
To get organized, you need two things: a spreadsheet for the numbers, and a file for the papers.
Putting Together a Spreadsheet
The first thing is a place to write down each collection agency you owe money to, and how much you owed them on what date. Most people will use a simple spreadsheet for this. You can put the name of the creditor in column A, the date in column B, and the amount you owe in column C.
It’s also a good idea to keep track of whether this is a priority debt, like back taxes and child or spousal support (alimony), a secured debt, like your mortgage or car payments, or a non-priority, unsecured debt, like student loans, or medical bills. You can put this information in column D.
Your spreadsheet can also keep the contact information for each creditor, including their mailing address and phone number in column E.
Some people will use elaborate spreadsheets to record all their debts. They will program their spreadsheets to keep track of every interest rate, late fees, and how much a debt grows month-to-month.
This is useful information to have at your fingers. But, if putting this information into the spreadsheet feels overwhelming, you can add that information later. When you get started, it’s more important to have a general idea of your financial picture.
Organizing Your Papers
Second, you need a safe place to keep your papers so they don’t get lost. This could be an old-fashioned steel filing cabinet, or a simple plastic box with some folders. As you collect papers from each collection agency, you can keep them in this box. Each creditor should have its own place to keep the papers together.
By keeping everything in one place, you’ll have a record that will let you keep track of your debts in the future. This will also come in handy if you need to challenge debts that you don’t think you owe any money on.
Request Your Free Credit Reports
Your credit reports are a perfect jumping off point for figuring out how much you owe, and who you owe it to. This is especially true for some slightly old debts you haven’t thought about in a while.
Every year, you can request a free credit report from the three credit bureaus: TransUnion, Equifax, Experian. The easiest way to do this is to go to AnnualCreditReport.com, or you can call (877) 322-8228 to request them over the phone.
When you get the copy of your credit history, you should make a list of all the collection agencies listed on it. Most debt collectors will report what you owe to one or more of the credit bureaus. You can use these lists to create your own list of debts.
Check Your Credit Reports For Signs of Identity Theft
As you’re going through your credit history, it’s a good idea to look for unusual activity that could mean someone stole your identity. For example, you might see a credit card you don’t recognize, from a store you never shop at.
If you believe there’s an error, send a written letter to each credit bureau where the error is listed. You should be very specific about what the error is, why you believe there is a mistake, and ask that the item be removed. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a template you can work from if you need to file a dispute with one of the credit reporting agencies.
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Credit Report vs. Credit Score
Your credit report is different from your credit score. Your credit report lists your credit history – credit cards, medical bills, mortgages, car payments, student loans you name it. This is like your transcript from school, listing all the classes you’ve taken. Your credit score is a number that represents how likely you are to pay a debt on time. This is like your GPA, which shows your overall grade.
Even though it’s not a credit reporting agency, like TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian, the Fair Isaac Corporation (FICO) is another important player in this game. FICO uses data from these credit reporting groups to give you a credit score. It’s not the only organization to provide this number, but it is fairly common for organizations to use this score when looking at your credit history.
Do Your Own Research
After you’ve taken a look at your credit history, go through your own papers. You might get monthly statements, either in hard copy form or in your email. Look for the most recent statement you can find.
Not every debt will appear on your credit report, so don’t skip this step. Newer debts may not show up yet, while debts older than seven years may have already fallen off your credit history.
For each statement you find, check it off against your credit report to make sure you have papers from each collection agency. Compare the debt amounts collected by the credit reporting bureaus against what you think you owe. Pay attention to see if there are any major discrepancies. If something doesn’t look right, you can ask the debt collector for more information and even challenge whether you owe the collection agency any money.
Don’t be too alarmed if you see a different collection company from your original creditor. It’s very common for lenders to sell debts to different collection companies after a certain point. However, you can still request verification to make sure this debt is authentic.
You should also check your voicemail and look for any messages left by debt collectors. They should leave the company name and phone number if they are a legitimate company. You don’t need to call the company back, since they might be aggressive over the phone. However, you can send a letter requesting that the company verify your debt.
Verify Your Debts
For each debt account you find, you can send a verification letter to confirm the amount you owe. Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), all creditors and debt collection companies must confirm that you do, in fact, owe them money, and how much you owe.
After you send a written notice requesting the creditor to verify your debt, they can’t conduct further debt collection activities until they respond.
Check the Statute of Limitations For Your State
Debt collectors can only legally sue you for an old debt for so long. At some point, the statute of limitations will kick in. If a debt collector hasn’t filed a lawsuit by that point, their case will get thrown out of court.
Each state has a different statute of limitations, so you’ll need to check your states’ laws. Depending on the time period, debts you can still be sued for may or may not appear on your credit history.
If a debt is past the statute of limitations, you won’t need to pay it. But, be careful – if you make a partial payment, or even promise to pay an old debt, the limitations period can reset, meaning that you could risk a debt collection lawsuit.
Keep an Eye Out For Scammers
Finally, as you’re going through your debts, make sure that nothing nefarious has been snuck in without your knowledge. Often, people discover collection account scams when they go through their credit histories and verify debts.
If someone has stolen your identity and taken out more debt in your name, this can negatively affect your credit score. Bad credit can affect a lot of different areas in your life, including how much you pay for car or renter’s insurance, the interest rate on a new vehicle, and whether or not you get approved for a home loan.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has some tips for recognizing scammers.
If a debt collector contacts you, they cannot threaten to release information about your debt to anybody else, including your boss or family members. They can’t withhold certain information about the collection account, like how much you owe, and they can’t lie to you.
Don’t let your debts intimidate you. After all, knowledge is power. Before you can take control of your finances, you need to understand your debts. By getting organized, checking your credit history, researching your debts, and getting rid of scammers, you’ll be putting yourself in a great position to make a move towards a healthier financial future.