Debt, Debt, and More Debt

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After seeing this household debt bubble chart, I’ve been especially sensitive to news about consumer debt. Here are some recent stats from across the spectrum:

Mortgages
According to real estate data firm CoreLogic, 22.7% of US homes with a mortgage had negative equity in the first quarter of 2011, meaning the outstanding mortgage amount was greater than the value of the property. That’s 10.9 million of them, and another 2.4 million had equity of 5% or less, which means with any further drops they’ll be in danger as well.

Nevada was the state with the biggest share of homes underwater, at 63% of all mortgaged properties, followed by Arizona (50%), Florida (46%), Michigan (36%), and California (31%). Goodness.

Home Equity Loans
The same report also found that a hefty 38% of borrowers who took cash out of their residences using home-equity loans are underwater. By contrast, only 18% of borrowers who don’t have these loans were underwater. Check out all the home equity extracted up until 2008, which is slowly being paid back now.

Is there some good data about what all this money bought?

401(k) Loans
Human-resources consulting group AON Hewitt reports that nearly 30% of 401(k) participants currently have a loan outstanding, the highest in recent history. On a purely interest-rate level, these loans can actually be a pretty good deal. (Don’t listen to the double-taxation myth perpetuated by Suze Orman and others.) However, you have the potential penalty of losing the preciouis tax-deferred benefit plus a 10% penalty if you don’t pay it back in time (and if you lose your job, it’s due even sooner). Still, having nearly a third of all people dipping into their retirement money can’t be a good thing.

Sources: ConsumerAffairs, LA Times, WSJ, SmartMoney

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Chart: The Household Debt Bubble?

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Economist Paul Krugman says that fragile banks are no longer what’s holding back economic recovery, it’s housing and household debt. We already saw that housing prices are dropping again, and yesterday he pointed out another chart of household debt as a percentage of disposable personal income over time:

CMDEBT stands for household credit market debt outstanding, and from what I can tell includes mortgages. DPI is disposable personal income.

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Why You Shouldn’t Use Debt Settlement Agencies

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The following is a guest post from reader Daniel Gershburg, Esq., who writes about the inner workings of debt settlement agencies. Daniel is a bankruptcy attorney in New York and New Jersey.

Over the past several years, our economy has gone into the tank. Rampant unemployment, underemployment, in fact a near collapse of the financial system have completely reshaped our financial lives. Millions of Americans are in credit card debt over their heads and can’t afford to pay even the minimums. And the creditors have, in many cases, several cut credit lines and hiked our interest rates. In a situation like this, a debtor basically has three options.

The first option is to file for Bankruptcy. While I think it’s the soundest option, both with regards to ones credit and future financial well being, I’m also a Bankruptcy attorney, so of course I feel that way.

The second option is to try and settle with credit card companies and bring down your interest and pay off your debt….good luck with that. They’re about as interested in settling with you now as you are in buying an investment property in Las Vegas.

The third option, and the option I’d like to discuss in depth here, is employing a Debt Settlement company to try and settle the debt for you. This not only, in my opinion, is the worst option of the lot, but based on what these companies claim, may border on fraud. Literally, fraud. Here’s why:

The promise of bailouts

Turn on the radio or the TV and you’ll hear absolute nonsense about how debt settlement companies can reduce the amount you pay to your creditors by up to 80%. One, called the Obama Credit Card Relief Program (I’m serious) promises to Cut Up To 70% Off Credit Card Debts under “Bailout Relief”. Again, absurd. The claims that many of them make aren’t even mathematically feasible based on most people’s budgets.

Many of these companies also make claims that they are Not for Profit companies. You hear that and you think of people planting trees, feeding the homeless in soup kitchens, and you begin to almost subconsciously trust these companies. The IRS did a little research into these feel good claims. Here’s what they found:

Over the past two years, the IRS has been auditing 63 credit counseling agencies, representing more than half of the revenue in the industry. To date, the audits of 41 organizations, representing more than 40 percent of the revenue in the industry, have been completed. All of the completed audits have resulted in revocation, proposed revocation or other termination of tax-exempt status. [Source: IRS.gov]

How do debt settlement companies really work?

[Read more…]

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Lower Your Credit Card APR: Phone Script from DebtGoal

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DebtGoal is a new site that helps you track and manage your debt-reduction goals (as opposed to a debt settlement company). After the free trial, it runs $11.95 per month. One of the things they do is try and guide you to lower the interest rates on your credit cards. Here’s a sample script that you can try out yourself for free, which is quite simple but probably also effective:

Hello, my name is _______________. I have been a cardholder since ____. In the past few months, several credit card companies have offered me lower rates than my current rate with you. I value my relationship with you, but I would like you to match the other offers that I have received and reduce my interest rate by ___%. Are you authorized to adjust my interest rate?

It can be handy to actually have offers or other cards in front of you that really have lower rates. Depending on their response, you could also throw in one of these:

  • “Are there other people who have the authority to lower my rate? May I speak with them?”
  • “Do you have a promotional rate that I can take advantage of?”
  • “What would I have to do to get a lower rate? Can I call back later when I meet those criteria?”
  • “Can I qualify for a hardship program?”

Any other success stories or tips?

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Ask The Readers: Cash Savings vs. Paying Down Loans

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There was a great response to my last Ask The Readers post: Parents Losing Home To Foreclosure!, so here’s another interesting question from one reader who’d like the input from other readers (yes, you!). It a variation of the old saving vs. paying down debt debate:

My wife and I were having a debate about savings as it relates to our home equity line of credit (HELOC). She has been brought up under the mantra of “always have at least 3 months of savings available,” which is fine by me, since I’ve always been a saver. Prior to getting the HELOC, we saw eye to eye pretty well. Now that we have a HELOC with about a $20k balance on it, I no longer would like to put any of my extra funds into a conventional “savings” account, but would rather use it to pay down the balance on the HELOC. To me, this is a game of interest rates — the HELOC is at 3.99% and the savings account is about 1%. I’m an IT guy who likes to see things in black-and-white whenever possible, and this is a case of that. As such, I’m willing to keep a ZERO (or negligible) balance in my savings account and just transfer funds from the HELOC account whenever we need money. I’m having a hard time selling her on this idea, though.

As I see it, I’d rather have $0 in my savings account and and $11k balance on my HELOC, whereas she’d rather have $9k in savings and a $20k balance on the HELOC. Even discounting the tax advantages of a HELOC, it seems like the higher interest rate accrued on the HELOC debt should override the low interest on savings. To me, it’s all one pot of money with differing interest rates. What’s your take? I’m sure this isn’t an uncommon circumstance.

The Liquidity Factor

This doesn’t directly answer the question, but I felt like one missing consideration is liquidity. Are home values decreasing in your area? How much home equity do you currently have? Unless it is a very high number, you may be in danger of having your HELOC frozen by your bank, which means you could be unable to borrow any more money at 3.99%. Many banks have been doing this recently.

If you were in the $0 in savings and $11k balance scenario and needed $1,000 to fix the car or more for some other emergency, what would you do without the HELOC? I am guessing that this is the situation that might worry your spouse, it would worry me!

Readers, what would you do?

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.