Even before the outbreak, 59 percent of credit card holders were carrying a balance, according to a recent survey by CreditCards.com. Of those who didn’t pay off their credit card debt every month, 25 percent had been falling behind for at least three years. Another 15 percent had carried debt for more than five years.
Cardholders most often used plastic to pay for medical expenses or car repairs, the CreditCards.com survey found.
People on the brink have been shoved over the edge of financial stability by covid-19. Tough decisions on what gets paid when have become even more critical.
If there’s not enough money coming in, you have to start taking care of your bills the same way medical staff handle an emergency room slammed with patients. A standard practice is to determine who needs to be seen first, a method called triage. This system is used when the demand for treatment is greater than the staff can handle.
“Before the coronavirus impact, I worked in a nail salon,” Jennifer from Troy, Ala., said in an email. “My work closed. I don’t have enough money to pay my car loan and phone bill. I’m too stressed.”
If you’ve lost your job or you’re facing a long furlough, triage your payments. Some creditors are just going to have to wait.
In “Surviving Debt: Expert Advice for Getting Out of Financial Trouble,” a team of 20 experts from the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) walk the reader through how to rank debts and expenses. The 2020-updated edition is the Color of Money Book Club pick for this month.
During the pandemic crisis, the NCLC is offering free digital access to the book, which retails for $20. You can download, print or email it at nclc.org/readsurvivingdebt. If you want a hard copy, you’ll have to pay the retail price, but shipping is free.
The book starts with six steps to surviving debt. The first step is prioritizing debts whose nonpayment will immediately harm your family.
High priority: Rent, mortgage, auto loan, utilities and child support.
Low priority: Credit card and medical debt, student loans and debt owed to friends and family.
People often rationalize that if they can’t pay their landlord in full, at least they should keep up with the minimum payment on a credit card.
“This is a bad idea,” according to the NCLC. “If you don’t have enough money to make full payments on high-priority debts, try to negotiate with the creditor to accept lower payments or save the money to be used later to get caught up, to cover the initial costs of moving to a new residence, or to pay for another car if your car is repossessed.”
And don’t let lower-priority creditors push you to pay what you can’t afford, the legal experts note. “A debt collector’s job is to convince you to pay its debts first,” they write. “Instead, make your own decision as to which debt has the highest priority. The collector contacting you most aggressively is often collecting on a low-priority debt. Do not be persuaded just to get the debt collector off your back.”
Concern about your credit rating should not move up a debt’s priority. You can fix that damage later. Threats to sue shouldn’t elevate a debt to the top of the list until you’re actually sued, the experts say.
“Surviving Debt” provides guidance on the most pressing financial concerns, including dealing with a possible eviction.
Although many jurisdictions have placed a moratorium on evictions, some landlords are still pressuring and threatening tenants to pay up or risk immediately being kicked out.
“My rental company told me they would and could lock my door and remove all of my possessions if I cannot pay the rent,” Angela from New York wrote.
The legal steps to an eviction vary from state to state. But even if the action can be taken quickly, you always have the right to a court hearing before you’re evicted. “Lockouts, utility shut-offs, dumping your possessions on the street, and other eviction-related harassment are illegal in all states, even when you are behind on your rent,” the authors point out.
“Surviving Debt” is a guide you’re going to want to read as you try to make ends meet during this epic financial storm.
I am hosting an online discussion about “Surviving Debt” at noon Eastern time on April 23 at washingtonpost.com/discussions. Two legal experts from the NCLC with expertise in debt collection and student loans will join me to take your questions on navigating tough financial situations.
Have a question about retirement or personal finance? Join Michelle for an online Q&A every Thursday at 12 p.m. Eastern time. Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or email@example.com. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to http://wapo.st/michelle-singletary.