If it feels like you’re drowning in a sea of debt, it can seem impossible to find a life raft, especially if the debt collectors have already started circling. Getting a handle on who you owe and how much money you owe them is an important first step in sorting out your personal finances. This article will give you some tips and tools you can use to climb aboard that life raft, grab a paddle, and start sorting out your financial life.
Written by Attorney Amelia Niemi.
Updated February 10, 2022
If it feels like you’re drowning in a sea of debt, it can seem impossible to find a life raft, especially if the debt collectors have already started circling. Getting a handle on who you owe and how much money you owe them is an important first step in sorting out your personal finances. Even though this can be intimidating and might feel hopeless, it can help you take concrete steps toward moving past your debts.
This article will give you some tips and tools you can use to climb aboard that life raft, grab a paddle, and start sorting out your financial life.
Start by getting yourself organized. If you’re like most people, you have a lot of bills to track. This can be overwhelming, but you can streamline it by setting up a simple spreadsheet. If you have bills and debt collection letters unopened in your junk drawer, you can’t get a good sense of your financial picture.
To get organized, you need two things: a spreadsheet for the numbers and a file for the papers.
Create a Simple Spreadsheet
The first thing is a place to write down each bank, debt collector, and 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 label the type of debt, so you can see at a glance which debts might be governed by different rules for collection purposes. Start by putting the original creditor or information about the debt in column D.
Secured debts are debts that have something backing them up like your mortgage or car loan. These are debts where your property could be repossessed by a creditor if you’re unable to make your payments.
Unsecured debts aren’t backed up by property. Common unsecured debts include student loans, credit card debt, or medical bills.
Priority debts include back taxes, child support payments, or spousal support (alimony). These debts are labeled as priority debts under the Bankruptcy Code. They can’t be discharged in bankruptcy.
You’ll also want to create a column for the contact information for each creditor, including their mailing address and phone number.
Some people create elaborate spreadsheets to record all their debts and program them to keep track of interest rates, late fees, and how much each debt grows each month. This is useful information to track. But if putting this information into the spreadsheet feels overwhelming, you can add it later. When you get started, it’s more important to have a general idea of your financial picture.
Organize 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 box with some folders. As you collect papers from each collection agency, you can keep them in this box. Create a different folder for each creditor and keep all the papers you get from them together.
By keeping everything in one place, you’ll have a record and can 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 starting point for figuring out how much you owe and who you owe it to. This is especially true for old debts you haven’t thought about in a while. Your credit report lists your personal information like your name and Social Security number along with your credit history for any credit card, loan, or other credit accounts you have.
Every year, you can request a free copy of your credit report from each of the three credit bureaus: TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian. The easiest way to do this is to go to AnnualCreditReport.com. You can also call (877) 322-8228 to request a copy of your credit report over the phone.
When you get a 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.
Credit Report vs. Credit Score
Your credit report is different from your credit score. Your credit report lists your credit history, including your credit cards, medical bills, mortgages, car payments, and student loans. This is like a school transcript that lists 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.
There are credit reporting agencies, like TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian, that keep information on your credit history and issue credit reports. And there are also credit-scoring companies like FICO and VantageScore. Your FICO and VantageScore use data from the credit reporting agencies to calculate your credit score.
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 company 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 Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have templates you can work from if you need to file a dispute with one of the credit reporting agencies.
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Do Your Own Research
After you’ve looked at your credit history, go through your own documents. Look for your most recent monthly statement for each account you have. It may be a hard copy you received in the mail, or you may be able to access it digitally online. Not every debt appears on every 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.
Check each statement you find against your credit report to make sure you have papers from each collection agency. Then, compare the debt amounts listed on your credit reports to what you think you owe. 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 collection company listed on your credit report that’s not your original creditor. It’s very common for lenders to sell debts to different collection companies after a certain point. That said, you can still request verification to make sure the debt is valid.
You should also check your voicemail and look for any messages left by debt collectors. They should identify themselves by leaving their 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. But 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 agencies must confirm that you do 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 expire. 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, pay attention to anything that doesn’t look right. 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 CFPB has some tips for recognizing scammers.
If a debt collector contacts you, they can’t 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 toward a healthier financial future.