Dealing With Debt Problems

​​​​​​​Having trouble paying your bills? Getting dunning notices from creditors? Are your accounts being turned over to debt collectors? Are you worried about losing your home or your car?

You’re not alone. Many people face a financial crisis at some point in their lives. Whether the crisis is caused by personal or family illness, the loss of a job, or overspending, it can seem overwhelming. But often, it can be overcome. Your financial situation doesn’t have to go from bad to worse.

​If you or someone you know is in financial hot water, consider these options: developing a realistic budget, seeking credit counseling from a reputable organization, exploring debt consolidation, or filing for bankruptcy. How do you know which will work best for you? It depends on your level of debt, your level of discipline, and your prospects for the future.


Developing a budget: 

The first step toward taking control of your financial situation is to do a realistic assessment of how much money you take in and how much money you spend. Start by listing your income from all sources.  Then, list your “fixed” expenses — those that are the same each month — like mortgage payments or rent, car payments, and insurance premiums.  Next, list the expenses that vary — like entertainment, recreation, and clothing. Writing down all your expenses, even those that seem insignificant is a helpful way to track your spending patterns, identify necessary expenses, and prioritize the rest. The goal is to make sure you can make ends meet on the basics: housing, food, health care, insurance, and education.

Your public library and bookstores have information about budgeting and money management techniques. In addition, computer software programs can be useful tools for developing and maintaining a budget, balancing your checkbook, and creating plans to save money and pay down your debt. Be aware, however, that some software is overly priced and of low quality. We recommend you search for free programs on the internet or purchase one from local retailers.

Contacting your creditors: 

Contact your creditors immediately if you’re having trouble making ends meet. Tell them why it’s difficult for you and try to work out a modified payment plan that reduces your payments to a more manageable level. Don’t wait until your accounts have been turned over to a debt collector.​

Dealing with debt collectors: 

A debt collector may not call you before 8 a.m., after 9 p.m., or while you’re at work if the collector knows that your employer doesn’t approve of the calls.  Collectors may not harass you, lie, or use unfair practices when they try to collect a debt, and they must honor a written request from you to stop further contact at either home and/or work.

For more information on collection practices, visit our page on Debt Collection General Practices.

Managing your auto and home loans: 

Your debts can be unsecured or secured. Secured debts usually are tied to an asset, like your car for a car loan, or your house for a mortgage. If you stop making payments, lenders can repossess your car or foreclose on your house. Unsecured debts are not tied to any asset and include most credit card debt, bills for medical care, signature loans, and debts for other types of services.

In Wisconsin, if the creditor wants to repossess your car because you stopped making payments on your auto loan the creditor must first send you a “Notice of Right to Cure Default.” This notice will inform you that you are in default and of the amount of past due payments you need to pay to cure the default. If you pay the past due amount within 15 days of receiving the notice you will have cured the default and your car cannot be repossessed. If you do not bring the loan current within 15 days your car can be repossessed. If your car is repossessed, you may have to pay all past due amounts and three future installments, as well as towing and storage costs, to get it back. If you can’t do this, the creditor may sell the car. If you see default approaching, you may be better off selling the car yourself and paying off the debt. You’ll avoid the added costs of repossession and a negative entry on your credit report.

If you fall behind on your mortgage, contact your lender immediately and this may help avoid foreclosure. Most lenders are willing to work with you if they believe you’re acting in good faith and the situation is temporary. Some lenders may reduce or suspend your payments for a short time. When you resume regular payments, though, you may have to pay an additional amount toward the past-due total. Other lenders may agree to change the terms of the mortgage by extending the repayment period to reduce the monthly debt. Ask whether additional fees would be assessed for these changes and calculate how much they total in the long term.

If you and your lender cannot work out a plan, contact a housing counseling agency. Some agencies limit their counseling services to homeowners with FHA mortgages, but many offer free help to any homeowner who is having trouble making mortgage payments. For help in finding a legitimate housing counseling agency near you contact the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) at (800) 569-4287 or visit​ HUD's Housing Counseling Services website at:

​Debt Relief Services

​Credit Counseling:

​If you are seeking help with creating a budget or working out a repayment plan with your creditors, then consider contacting a credit counseling organization. Through education, budgeting, and the use of a variety of tools, credit counseling organizations can help you reach your goal of ultimately eliminating your debt.

Many credit counseling organizations are nonprofit and work with you to solve your financial difficulties; however, be aware that just because an organization says it is a “nonprofit" organization, there's no guarantee that its services are free, affordable, or even legitimate. In fact, some credit counseling organizations charge high fees, which may be hidden, or urge consumers to make "voluntary" contributions that can cause more debt. For these reasons, it is important to choose a company that is licensed. Adjustment service companies that are licensed by the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions are required to follow laws that limit the fees that can be charged.  For a list of licensed credit counselors, view this list of Adjustment Service Company Licensees.

Most credit counselors offer services through local offices, the internet, or over the telephone. If possible, find an organization that is licensed and offers in-person counseling. Many universities, military bases, credit unions, housing authorities, and branches of the U.S. Cooperative Extension Service operate nonprofit credit counseling programs. Your financial institution, local consumer protection agency, and friends and family may also be good sources of information and referrals.

Reputable credit counseling organizations can advise you on managing your money and debts, help you develop a budget, and offer free educational materials and workshops. Their counselors are certified and trained in the areas of consumer credit, money and debt management, and budgeting. Counselors discuss your entire financial situation with you and help you develop a personalized plan to solve your money concerns. An initial counseling session typically lasts an hour, with an offer of follow-up sessions.

Debt management plans: 

If your financial problems stem from too much debt or your inability to repay your debts, a credit counseling agency may recommend that you enroll in a debt management plan (DMP). A DMP alone is not credit counseling, and DMPs are not for everyone. You should sign up for one of these plans only after a certified credit counselor has spent time thoroughly reviewing your financial situation and has offered you customized advice on managing your money. Even if a DMP is appropriate for you, a reputable credit counseling organization can still help you create a budget and teach you money management skills.

In a DMP, you deposit money each month with the credit counseling organization, which uses your deposits to pay your unsecured debts, like your credit card bills, student loans, and medical bills, according to a payment schedule the counselor develops with you and your creditors. Your creditors may agree to lower your interest rates or waive certain fees, but check with all your creditors to be sure they offer the concessions that a credit counseling organization describes to you. A successful DMP requires you to make regular, timely payments and could take 48 months or more to complete. Ask the credit counselor to estimate how long it will take for you to complete the plan. You may have to agree not to apply for — or use — any additional credit while you’re participating in the plan.  Credit counselors that provide DMPs in Wisconsin are referred to as adjustment service companies and a list of those licensed to do business in Wisconsin can be found at:  List of Adjustment Service Company Licensees. 

Dealing with Debt Problems (Continued)

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Phone:  (608) 264-7969
Toll-Free:  (800) 452-3328 (in Wisconsin)
Fax:  (608) 264-7968