William Kent Brunette is very candid about how he became an expert on credit problems: he had them himself, along with a drinking problem, and he knows very well that credit problems and personal problems often go together. He beat his six years ago and began talking to after-care groups about how people could get back on their feet.
He handed out brochures and kept track of the questions that people kept asking. The result is "Conquer Your Debt -- How to Solve Your Credit Problems," which Prentice-Hall published this summer. Brunette wanted it brought out in paperback "because I didn't want it to be priced out of the range of people who most need it."
Brunette, 36, is a lawyer and the banking lobbyist for the American Association of Retired Persons. Unlike most Americans, he is intimately familiar with the Equal Opportunity Credit Act, the Fair Credit Billing Act and the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the three pieces of legislation that are supposed to protect consumers and creditors from each other.
Consumer debt in this country is at an all-time high: 110 million Americans hold more than a billion credit cards. The average cardholder has 9.1 cards. This year, consumers will take out an estimated $225.4 billion in credit card debt. The average unpaid balance on a card is $2,050. Personal bankruptcies are at an all-time high, and with the economic downturn that we are headed into, more and more people are going to be in trouble with credit. This is a book that can help people protect themselves from themselves.
Brunette explains what the various parties rights' and obligations are in the often strained relationships that arise between consumers and creditors. It enumerates consumers' protections: For example, when a credit charge is being disputed, the credit company cannot charge the consumer a late payment fee nor can it report the consumer's failure to pay a disputed charge to a credit agency. Brunette outlines the written steps consumers must take to effectively challenge a bill.
He lists the warning signs of credit trouble and he shows people how to restructure their debt. "Once you're in difficulty," he said in an interview, "the only thing you can do is bite the bullet and take care of it.
"Society in general is spending at a far greater rate than did previous generations. My mom and dad are very responsible. The baby boom generation has a new attitude: let's buy now and pay later. But the baby boomers are starting to grow up and they are starting to save for kids' education and their retirement. This is responsible credit behavior.
"The people more likely to carry over credit debt month to month are younger people, 25 to 40 years old. Older people tend to pay it off each month. They were brought up during the Depression and they are well aware of what adverse economic conditions can do. Plus, they accumulated assets.
"Generally people should have no more than 15 percent of their annual take-home pay in outstanding credit obligations. That includes lines of credit on home equity loans, credit cards, new car payments. It does not include home mortgage. Most creditors won't extend credit if you have more. If people find they have more, I suggest they seriously reevaluate their attitude toward credit and spending.
"Every two or three years, people need to get a copy of their credit report and scrutinize it," Brunette says. "Ninety percent of the people who do this find an error. I got a copy of mine and my dad's credit was on it." He explains in the book how to get inaccurate credit information corrected.
He has kind words for Consumer Credit Counseling Services, which serve as intermediaries to help people who can't repay loans get back on their feet and to teach them to be more financially responsible. The "credit doctors," as he calls them, who advertise in newspapers, "don't show people how to responsibly use credit. They don't tell you you should try living on cash for a while."
He has a section on developing a personal budget that includes spending guidelines: Housing, for example, should take up no more than 33 to 35 percent of your take-home pay, and food no more than 20 to 26 percent. Brunette, who does not have children, allocated 4 to 6 percent for child care, which is much less than most families spend.
He urges women to set up their own financial credit history apart from their spouses and he shows women who have been traditional homemakers how to do that. "Conquer Your Debt" has a section showing young adults how to build a responsible credit history and how to avoid the temptation of getting seduced by plastic. It's a great gift for parents sending a young adult off into the world.