My trembling left hand held a cup of green tea as my right dipped into a box of Kleenex. I had long ago stopped wearing eye makeup (too expensive!) but if I had been wearing mascara, it would have been all over my cheeks by now.
It had been a tough few years. I had gone through a divorce, left my corporate job and lost my house in the Great Recession. To top it all off, I found myself hopelessly in debt.
With only a few years left to retirement age, I wondered what my life would be like in the decades ahead. With no savings, would I be forced to live in poverty? Or, would I be able to claw my way back and get my life back on track?
The story of how I turned my life around is long and complicated. Today, I want to focus on just one aspect of my story – how I negotiated with my creditors so that I could get my life back on track.
I’m not a financial professional, so, I’m not offering “advice.” I’m simply sharing my own story in the hope that it helps you to understand and deal with your own.
Here’s what I learned as I paid off tens of thousands of dollars of debt over a 10 year period.
It seems obvious but the number one mistake people make when negotiating with their creditors is… not negotiating with their creditors. At the same time, picking up the phone is actually the toughest step.
I know this from personal experience. When you pick up the phone to call one of your creditors, you are forced to admit to yourself that your problems are real. You may feel guilty, angry, embarrassed or a number of other negative emotions.
One thing is for sure, your financial problems won’t solve themselves. Your creditors are not mind-readers. Unless you reach out to them, you are just a number. In fact, since many of the decisions regarding your debts are made by computers, you are quite literally just a bunch of 1’s and 0’s.
If it helps, write yourself a short script. But, no matter what you do, don’t assume that your financial problems will heal themselves.
Be honest with yourself about your situation. Have you had a short-term set-back or is your financial situation permanently damaged? If it’s the former, you may try to negotiate a break in your payments so that you can get your financial house in order. If it’s the later, you may try to negotiate down the total amount that you need to pay.
Either way, make sure that your story supports what you are asking for. Be human, but, also make sure that the person you are talking too has the facts that they need to make a decision or refer you to someone who can.
When you are going through an emotional time, it’s easy to go off track. Ultimately, your creditor cares about getting paid back as much of the money that they are owed as possible. They don’t care how your situation makes you feel or how unfair it is. Here’s an example:
“I was laid off from my company three months ago. I’ve been looking for work since then, but, at age 62, I’m finding it difficult to find a new job. In addition, I have had some unexpected medical expenses come up recently that have eaten up most of my savings. So, at this point, I’m thinking about talking with a bankruptcy attorney to see what my options are. I thought that I would talk with you first though to see if there is any flexibility with regards to the amount that I need to pay back.”
One quick word of warning. Don’t lie. Not only is it unethical, but, you risk getting caught. Don’t forget that many conversations are recorded, so, it is unlikely that you will be able to keep your story consistent if it isn’t true!
The person that you talk to on the phone has a tough job. From the minute that they get to work they are screamed at and threatened. They hear the most horrible stories and hysterical crying fits. Be the exception.
Others may disagree with me, but, I found that a constructive approach works best. Be honest about your hardship without putting emotional pressure on the person you are talking with. Then, put yourself on the same side of the table as them. Use statements like…
“I definitely understand what you’re saying about your bank’s policy. Unfortunately, losing my job at age 62 really has put me in a difficult situation. Obviously, it’s in both of our interest for us to be able to resolve this before the situation gets any worst. Is this something we can work on together? I’d love your help in coming up with a solution that works for everyone.”
When I got serious about paying off my debts, I started a Word document for each of my creditors. Each time I spoke with someone, I wrote down the date, time, name of the representative and the details of our conversation. I also wrote down any questions that they asked me. This last detail is especially important as, even though I never had to do so, it is possible to use illegal questions against your creditors in court.
It is very likely that your first request for a change in your payment schedule or a reduction in the amount that you have to pay back will be rejected. Don’t be discouraged by this!
Make sure that you ask to speak to a supervisor if your request is rejected by the first person you talk with. If your request is rejected by the supervisor, set up a reminder to call the company again in a month or two. After all, your situation is constantly evolving.
It can take months to find someone who can help you to put together a deal that works for everyone. Don’t be disheartened if your initial conversations aren’t productive. If it helps, see the whole thing as one big game. Each turn takes you closer to your goal of financial freedom.
I would never advise letting your debt go to collections if you have a choice. Not only do collections proceedings often create big dents in your credit score, but, the process itself is painful.
That said, I know people who have eventually made deals with the collections agencies to which their debts are sold. The most important thing is to engage with the collection’s agency.
Let me repeat that – no matter what you do, don’t ignore agencies that own your debt. Instead of waiting for their daily dinner-time calls, pick up the phone and call them first. Use the same script that you used when you talked to your original creditors. You may just be surprised by the results.
I know several people who thought they had resolved their debts only to have them come back and bite them when they least expected it. It’s not just that people lie – although they do. It’s also that we often remember calls differently than our creditors.
What was presented as a “We may be able to…” could sound like “We will be able to…” when you think back on your conversation.
If you think you have negotiated a deal that will work for you and your creditors, get it in writing. This is good for everyone involved.
This is just my personal opinion, but, if you are approaching retirement age, it seems to me that you have an advantage over younger people who are also trying to pay back their debts.
The simple truth is that the idea of retirement is so strongly engrained into people’s minds that they can’t imagine you continuing to work past age 66. This means that they think they have a limited time to resolve your debt before your ability to pay them back decreases. In other words, as a person in his or her 50s or 60s, you are a ticking time bomb. Take advantage of this and clear your debts now.
What advice would you give to a friend who is struggling with debt in her 50s, 60s or older? Please join the conversation!