One of the most alarming things about debt is how easy it is to get in over your head. Like a snowball growing ever larger as it rolls down a hill, mortgages, car loans, credit cards, student loans, and medical bills can quickly pile up into a mountain of debt that’s beyond your ability to pay. The next thing you know, you’re spending most of your time trying to fend off the debt collectors beating down your door.
One way to escape this situation is debt settlement through a company like Freedom Debt Relief. In many cases, creditors are willing to settle your debt in return for a sum that’s less than you actually owe rather than risk having to write it off as a complete loss.
Large companies have small armies of accountants who can help them figure out when accepting a debt settlement is in their interest. But as an individual debtor, you don’t have the same resources to help you figure out if it’s a good idea for you. You have to do the math yourself to decide whether settlement is the best solution to your debt problems.
Why Companies Negotiate Over Debts
At first glance, it’s not so obvious why creditors would ever be willing to accept a debt settlement. If you owe them, say, $40,000, why would they ever settle for $20,000? Wouldn’t it make more sense to hold out for the full amount?
The answer to this question would be yes if they were sure they could get it. But when you’re already several months behind on your payments, they have to recognize the possibility that you’ll never be able to pay off the debt at all. They can sue you to recover the money, but that’s costly and time-consuming for them, and it doesn’t always work.
Also, there’s always the risk you could declare bankruptcy. If that happens, they could end up with nothing at all. According to Nolo, unsecured debts — that is, loans with no collateral, such as credit card debt or medical bills — are always discharged, or canceled, in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy and usually in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy as well. Thus, unsecured lenders have a particularly strong incentive to settle a loan to avoid this outcome.
Debt collectors also have good reasons for settling a debt. Many of them are technically debt buyers — companies that buy up other companies’ old debts for pennies on the dollar. Since they paid so little to acquire your debt, they don’t need to collect all of it to turn a profit. If you agree to pay back just a portion of the debt right away, that’s often a better deal for them than spending extra time and resources trying for the full amount.
Pros & Cons of Debt Settlement
The obvious benefit of debt settlement is getting rid of your debt for less than you owe. According to Nolo, many creditors are willing to settle a debt for less than half the original amount. And if you can make this smaller payment as a lump sum, you can free yourself from debt much faster than you could with years of monthly payments.
The main downside of negotiating with your creditors is that it can further damage your credit score, which is probably suffering already due to all the payments you’ve missed so far. Creditors are only willing to negotiate if they believe you’re not going to pay them back otherwise, so to get them to take you seriously, you must continue to skip payments while you’re negotiating. Each missed payment is a further blow to your credit score, and there’s no guarantee you can obtain a settlement in the end.
Even if your creditors agree to a settlement, the damage to your credit isn’t over. A debt listed as “settled” is a serious black mark on your credit report. However, it’s often less damaging than the alternatives. Bankruptcy hurts your credit even more, and leaving the debt unpaid could lead to other detrimental actions from your creditor, such as:
- A charge-off (having the debt marked as unlikely to be repaid, usually when it’s six months overdue)
- Having the debt sent to collections
- Taking you to court and getting a judgment against you, which could result in having your wages or assets garnished (seized)
Negotiating with creditors also offers a way to soften the blow to your credit. The deal you strike can cover not just how much you pay them but also how they report your settled debt to the credit bureaus. If you can persuade them to mark the account “paid as agreed,” it hurts your credit score less than a debt marked as “settled” or “paid settled.”
Another possible downside is that if a lender agrees to cancel part of your debt, the IRS can treat that forgiven debt as taxable income. In general, Nolo says, you must pay taxes on any canceled debt of $600 or more. If the amount of the forgiven debt is in the tens of thousands, this can lead to a sizable bump in your next tax bill.
Alternatives to Debt Settlement
Before you attempt to settle your debts with your creditors, it’s worth looking into the alternatives. These include consolidating your debts, making a plan to pay them off in full, declaring bankruptcy, and DIY debt triage strategies like those described here by Bar Business.
If you’re having trouble meeting the payments on several high-interest debts, perhaps a debt consolidation loan could bring those payments down to a manageable level. These loans roll several existing debts into a single loan with a lower interest rate.
You can use a debt consolidation loan for credit card debt, personal loans, medical debt, unsecured personal loans, and sometimes student loans. You can’t use it for secured debts such as a mortgage or car loan. A debt consolidation loan doesn’t reduce the total amount you owe, but it can reduce the amount you pay each month. It also doesn’t harm your credit like a debt settlement.
Another option is credit counseling. For a fee, a credit counselor can help you work out a debt management plan (DMP). A DMP is a binding agreement to pay off all your debts within a specific period, typically three to five years. Like debt consolidation loans, DMPs only work for unsecured debts, such as credit card debt and medical bills, according to Credit.org. You can’t use them to pay off mortgage debt, auto loans, or federal student loans.
Unlike a debt settlement, a DMP doesn’t reduce the amount of debt you pay. On the plus side, it doesn’t damage your credit or cost you extra in taxes, according to Experian. Credit.org says a DMP is likely a better option if you have less than $10,000 in unsecured debt, while settlement is probably better if you owe more than $10,000.
If your financial situation is dire, bankruptcy might be your best option. It’s a faster process than debt settlement and can erase more of your debt. It’s also less hassle, as it doesn’t require you to negotiate with creditors or come up with cash for a lump-sum payment. And once you’ve filed for bankruptcy, debt collectors have to stop pestering you.
However, bankruptcy is also just about the worst thing that can happen to your credit score. According to Experian, bankruptcy is a black mark that stays on your credit report for up to 10 years as opposed to seven for debt settlement. Also, bankruptcy can require you to sell off your personal belongings to pay off debt, including anything of value, including real estate, cars, and jewelry.
When to Consider Debt Settlement
Although settling a debt hurts your credit in the short term, it can often be the best way to get your finances back on track for the long term. To figure out whether it’s the right decision in your case, you need to look at your specific situation and weigh the alternatives. Before deciding to take the plunge, consider these questions:
What Kind of Debt Do You Have?
Creditors are more willing to negotiate some types of debt than others. In general, they’re more prepared to settle a debt if they think they can get more of their money back with less hassle than they would by holding out for the whole amount.
Debts that creditors are usually willing to negotiate over include:
- Credit Card Debt. According to Nolo, credit card debt is one of the easiest types of debt to negotiate. Lenders are usually willing to bargain because they’ll probably get nothing if you go bankrupt.
- Unsecured Loans. Like credit card debt, unsecured personal loans aren’t backed by collateral. Most lenders would rather negotiate a settlement with you than risk losing everything. However, it makes a difference whether your loan came from a bank or a credit union. According to Nolo, credit unions can “cross-collateralize” debts, using your collateral for one debt, such as an auto loan, to secure a different one. Even if you’ve already paid off the auto loan, the credit union can still repossess your car to pay off your personal loan. That can make credit unions less willing to settle unsecured loans and more likely to insist on being paid back at least half of what you owe.
- Unpaid Bills. Unpaid bills, such as medical bills, are basically unsecured loans. They’re usually wiped out during bankruptcy, which gives their issuers a strong incentive to negotiate with you and get at least some of their money back.
Other debts are much harder to negotiate. These include:
- Secured Loans. A secured loan is backed by some type of asset, such as a car, boat, RV, or motorcycle. If you fail to meet your payments on this type of loan, the lender can repossess the asset. Thus, they have little reason to fear losing their money. However, Nolo says these loans are somewhat easier to negotiate when you’re dealing with a small local lender rather than a large national bank.
- Student Loans. According to Nolo, student loans are one of the toughest types of debt to negotiate. This type of loan usually can’t be discharged through bankruptcy, so your creditors don’t need to worry about you escaping the debt this way. However, Stanley Tate, a student loan lawyer interviewed by U.S. News & World Report, notes that it’s easier to negotiate private student loans from banks than federal student loans, which are subject to stricter rules about repayment.
- Unpaid Federal Taxes. If you owe back taxes to the federal government, the IRS typically offers you a streamlined payment plan with regular monthly payments that include interest and penalties. If you can’t afford the payments, you may be able to make an “offer in compromise”: a smaller amount as a lump sum. However, the IRS only accepts these offers in certain cases, which it outlines in its offer in compromise pre-qualifier tool. Nolo says you’re likely to have more luck negotiating over back taxes if the debt is several years old.
Mortgage loans are a special case. If you fall behind on your mortgage payments, your lender can foreclose on your home to recover the loan balance. That gives them little incentive to settle for less than the full balance. However, foreclosure is a hassle for lenders, so there’s a good chance the bank will work with you on a plan to avoid it.
How Old Is Your Debt?
According to National Debt Relief, most lenders will not consider a debt settlement unless you have a debt of at least $8,000 that’s over 90 days past due. And once your debt is four to six months late, there’s a good chance the creditor will offer you a settlement, according to Lending Tree. That’s because once the debt is six months overdue, the creditor will most likely have to charge it off, meaning it gets nothing. So, the closer you get to this crucial six-month mark, the better your chances of getting the bulk of your debt canceled.
However, there are downsides to waiting this long before asking for a debt settlement. You have to continue skipping payments while you negotiate, causing your credit score to drop even lower, and there’s no guarantee you’ll succeed in reducing the debt. And the longer you wait past the 90-day mark, the greater the risk your debt ends up in collections, which is an even more serious blow to your credit.
Your best bet is probably to start negotiating with the creditor as soon as your debt is 90 days overdue. The sooner you start working on the problem, the better the chances you can minimize the damage to your credit rating.
Do You Have Money for a Settlement?
You can’t make a deal to settle your debt without the money to back it up. Creditors are more likely to agree to a deal if you offer them a large lump sum payment, rather than a series of smaller payments. Since you’ve already missed payments on the debts you currently owe, they have reason to worry that you won’t make the payments on the new plan either.
Possible ways to get a large enough lump sum for settling a debt include:
- Raiding your emergency fund
- Using the cash from a financial windfall, such as an inheritance, lottery winnings, or a sizable tax refund
- Taking an early withdrawal from your retirement account — you’ll pay a penalty for this, but it could be less than the amount you save by reducing your debt
If you can’t manage to come up with a sufficient lump sum, you can try to talk your creditors into a payment plan. You’ll most likely end up paying more in total this way, but the individual payments could be easier to handle. If you agree to a payment plan for debt settlement, make sure you understand how much you’ll pay overall.
Are You a Good Negotiator?
Settling a debt for significantly less than you owe requires adept negotiating skills. To a large extent, this is a matter of self-confidence. If you believe you can strike a good bargain, you probably will. Practicing your sales pitch ahead of time, perhaps with the help of a friend, can help you feel more confident when you make the call.
However, if you’re still uncertain about your ability to negotiate when so much is at stake, you can look for professional help. A credit counseling agency might have more luck talking your creditors into a repayment plan than you can on your own. And if debt collectors are giving you a hard time, consider talking to a lawyer. According to MarketWatch, most bankruptcy attorneys offer a free initial consultation, and they can advise you about what creditors can and can’t legally do to collect on a debt.
How to Negotiate a Debt Settlement
There are two ways to negotiate a debt settlement. You can do it yourself or hire a debt settlement company. These for-profit companies negotiate with your creditors on your behalf in exchange for a fee. According to the Center for Responsible Lending, this fee is typically 20% to 25% of the amount you owe, although some states cap it at a lower level.
Using a debt settlement company can be less work than negotiating on your own, but it has some significant downsides. In addition to their high fees, these companies generally require you to stop making payments on your debt and instead set money aside in a special account for at least 36 months. They don’t actually begin negotiating with your creditors until there’s enough in the account to cover your lump-sum payment and their fee. Your credit score will drop while you wait, and there’s no guarantee the company can settle all your debt.
Worse still, according to the Federal Trade Commission, many debt settlement programs are dishonest about what they can do for you. Some “guarantee” to wipe out 40% to 70% of your debt, even though there’s no way they can force your creditors to settle. Others try to collect their fees upfront before settling any of your debt, a practice that’s prohibited by law. And most don’t warn you your credit will suffer, that debt collectors can continue to call you, and that many customers end up dropping out of their programs without getting a settlement.
For most people, do-it-yourself debt settlement is a better choice. By dealing directly with your creditors, you can settle your debt in as little as six months after it becomes overdue rather than waiting three years. And while you have no guarantee of success, at least you don’t have to pay a hefty fee for a plan that might not work.
To negotiate with creditors on your own, follow these steps.
Step 1: Work Out Your Budget
Before you can begin negotiating with creditors, you need to know exactly how much you can afford to offer them. Go over your household budget line by line, looking for any possible places you can squeeze out a little extra cash for a monthly or lump-sum payment. If you can’t find enough savings by cutting back on extras like your cellphone plan, gym membership, or cable TV, try looking for bigger savings like giving up your car, finding a cheaper apartment, or slashing your grocery bill. Also, look for ways to earn extra income, such as working additional hours, taking on a side gig, or selling stuff online.
Once you’ve figured out how much you can afford to pay — either upfront or as a monthly sum — write that number down. It’s your maximum budget for negotiating with creditors. Don’t agree to a deal that requires you to pay more than this, no matter how much the creditor pushes you. If you do, you’ll just end up falling behind on payments again, and you’ll be right back in the same situation as before.
Pro tip: If you need to reduce your expenses, sign up for Billshark. They will help you negotiate lower rates on your bills and cancel unwanted subscriptions.
Step 2: Have a Clear Narrative
Once you know your budget, it’s time to call up your creditors and start bargaining. Nolo and MarketWatch recommend starting with a clear, concise explanation of why you’re having trouble paying your bills.
There’s no need to go into lots of detail here. Just provide a sentence or two explaining the problem you’ve had and how you’re trying to deal with it. For instance, you might say, “I was laid off from work during the COVID-19 pandemic, and my household income was cut in half. I’m looking for part-time work, but I can’t meet the payments right now.”
Stick to the facts, and avoid the temptation to embellish. Once you start exaggerating the truth, it’s much harder to keep your story straight. If you tell a different tale each time you call, you’ll make the creditors suspicious, and they’ll be less willing to cut a deal with you.
Step 3: Bring Up Bankruptcy
The main reason creditors have to negotiate with you is that they fear losing their entire investment if they don’t. If they have to sell off your debt to a debt buyer, they’ll get very little, and if you go bankrupt, they could get nothing.
Thus, Nolo recommends bringing up the danger of bankruptcy early in your conversation. Even if you’re not really considering bankruptcy as an option, suggesting it’s a possibility gives your creditor an incentive to strike a deal. This threat works particularly well with unsecured lenders, who are most likely to end up with nothing if you file for bankruptcy.
Step 4: Make a Lowball Offer
Start your negotiations by making a lowball offer. For instance, you could ask the creditor to settle the debt for 15% of what you currently owe. Of course, you shouldn’t expect the creditor to accept this offer. Instead, they’ll probably counter with a higher amount, such as 80%.
From there, you can gradually work your way toward a middle ground. However, by starting low, you improve your chances of ending up with a number that’s less than half your original debt. According to Nolo, unsecured creditors usually settle for somewhere between 30% and 50% of the total.
As you negotiate, keep your budget in mind. For instance, if you know the most you can afford to pay is 40% of what you owe, start low enough to end up with a settlement no higher than that amount. Settling your debt for an amount you can’t afford is no better than not settling it at all.
Step 5: Stay Calm
When you’re under a lot of financial stress, it’s frustrating if the person on the other end of the line doesn’t show any sympathy for your problems. However, taking that anger out on your creditor or a debt collector doesn’t get you anywhere. Most likely, they’ll just label you a problem customer and hang up.
To keep the other person talking, do your best to stay calm. If you find yourself growing upset, tell the other person you need to call them back, and hang up. If you’re having problems with a customer service rep who’s being particularly rude or harsh with you, tell them you’d like to record the conversation. Chances are they’ll start acting more polite at that point.
Likewise, if a debt collector starts threatening you with a lawsuit or loss of property, don’t panic. Instead, calmly ask for more information. For instance, you can ask when you’ll receive official notice about the lawsuit or when they’ll take the money from your bank account.
Make careful notes of how the collector answers these questions. There are legal limits to what debt collectors can say and do to you, and there’s a chance their threats are over this legal line. For instance, they can’t threaten to throw you in jail or threaten you with a lawsuit or property seizure unless they plan to follow through. If you catch a debt collector breaking the law, you can turn the tables by suing them and possibly get reimbursed for damages such as lost wages.
Step 6: Be Patient
You probably won’t be able to settle your debt the first time you call a creditor. In some cases, the first person you talk to doesn’t have the authority to make a deal with you, and in others, they just aren’t willing to. Instead of giving up, call back to see if you can reach someone more cooperative. If you’re not getting anywhere with customer service representatives, ask to speak to a manager.
Even once you get through to someone willing to bargain, it could take several rounds of back-and-forth offers to reach a deal. Take notes of all your conversations with creditors and collectors. That way, you have a record of what the last offer was next time you call. Include the name of the person you talked to, the date and time, and the subject matter. That way, your creditor can’t attempt to go back on an earlier offer. Keep all your notes in a file along with any letters you receive from the creditor or debt collector.
As you negotiate, keep your eyes on your goal. Your aim should be to settle all your debts if at all possible. If you can’t do that, you need to settle enough of the debt to bring the remaining balance down to a level you can handle. Otherwise, you’ll be no better off than you are now.
Step 7: Get It in Writing
When you finally reach a deal with a creditor, make sure to get all the details in writing. That includes the amount you’ve agreed to pay, the amount they’re forgiving, the terms of repayment (a lump-sum or payment plan), and the way they’ll list the settlement on your credit report.
Gerri Detweiler of MarketWatch recommends getting an agreement on paper before you pay back one cent of your debt. Without a written deal, she says, your creditor could change the terms of the agreement without warning, and you’ll have no way to prove they went back on their word. She’s heard of cases in which creditors continued to harass customers over balances they thought they’d settled years earlier.
But remember that a written agreement cuts both ways. It holds you to account too. If you miss even a single payment, the creditor can withdraw the entire settlement deal, and you’ll be right back to square one. They’ll simply apply all the money you’ve already paid toward your full balance, and you’ll still owe the rest.
Negotiating Strategies for Different Types of Debt
The specific strategies that can benefit you most in your negotiation depend on what kind of debt you have. In some cases, you can talk your creditors into settling your debt by stressing the risk of bankruptcy. In others, getting a debt settlement is unlikely, but there are other programs that can help make your debt more manageable.
Credit Card Debt & Other Unsecured Loans
Both credit card debt and unsecured bank loans are fairly easy to negotiate. With these types of loans, lenders know that they’ll probably get nothing if you go bankrupt. Thus, the best way to get them to play ball is to start your negotiations by bringing up the danger of bankruptcy.
Unpaid bills, such as hospital or car repair bills, are another type of unsecured loan. You can negotiate with any service provider — such as a doctor, dentist, attorney, or car mechanic — just as you would with a bank or credit card issuer. Since they will probably get nothing if you go bankrupt, bringing up the risk of bankruptcy gives them a strong incentive to negotiate.
Talking to the right person is also essential. According to Nolo, a customer service agent at your credit card company probably can’t make a deal with you on debt settlement. Talk politely with the agent, but don’t be surprised if they turn down your request. Instead of giving up, simply ask if you can talk to a supervisor or be transferred to another department. Sometimes, you need to talk to several people before you reach someone who’s in a position to negotiate.
Auto Loans & Other Secured Loans
Secured loans, such as auto loans, are harder to negotiate. The lender can always just repossess your car to recover the lost money. Often, it makes more sense to sell the car yourself and use the money to pay off the loan. However, this isn’t an option when you have an upside–down car loan, meaning you owe more than the car’s worth.
In this situation, Nolo says your best bet is to contact the lender right away — as soon as you miss your first payment. Any delay increases the risk they’ll repossess your car. Ask about options such as:
- Changing Your Payment Date. Ask if the lender can change the date when your monthly payment is due to match the timing of your paycheck. In some cases, this small change is all you need to make your payments manageable.
- Waiving Late Fees. A lender who’s willing to change your payment date might also consider waiving the late fee on payments you’ve already missed. They might even be willing to reduce the interest you owe on the missed payments, making the overdue balance more manageable.
- Refinancing. See if the lender can refinance your loan to make the payments lower. That usually means extending the loan term, which means you’ll take longer to pay off the loan and pay more interest overall. However, it’s often better than losing both the car and all the payments you’ve made to date. And many lenders are happy to do it because it means more money for them.
- An Extension. Extending your loan means tacking the payments you’ve missed onto the end of the loan term. Lenders are usually willing to do this only if you’ve made at least six payments and you can show your financial problems are temporary. Also, they typically charge a fee for an extension, such as one month’s interest or 1% of your remaining balance.
With other types of secured loans, repossession isn’t always as easy as it is with a car loan. For these loans, Nolo says leading with the threat of bankruptcy is once again your best strategy. Offering a lump-sum payment is also a good approach.
Federal student loans are especially hard to negotiate because you can’t dodge them by declaring bankruptcy. However, there are government programs that allow student loan forgiveness in certain circumstances. You may qualify if you have low income or do a type of work that’s considered public service.
Other student loan payment programs help you reduce your monthly payments or delay paying for a set period. For instance, income-driven repayment plans set a monthly payment based on what you can afford.
Settling a student loan is possible, but only if the loan is in default. According to U.S. News & World Report, that usually means you’re nine months late on payments for federal student loans or three months late for private loans. If your federal student loan has gone to a collection agency, it can generally accept only three kinds of settlement deal:
- You pay the whole loan amount plus any unpaid interest, but no additional fees;
- You pay the whole loan amount plus half the interest you owe;
- You pay 90 percent of all the money you owe, including principal and interest.
For any other deal, the agency must get approval from the United States Department of Education.
With private student loans, there’s more leeway for negotiation. Tate, the lawyer interviewed by U.S. News & World Report, says it’s often possible to settle a loan that’s in default for 30% to 60% of the total owed. You can pay the money back as a lump sum or in installments.
Although mortgage lenders always have the option of foreclosing on your home, they prefer to avoid doing so. They can get back the value of the loan balance this way, but no interest, and they have to jump through a bunch of legal hoops. Thus, lenders are usually willing to help you find a way to avoid foreclosure.
If you’re behind on your mortgage payments, talk to your lender about options like:
- Refinancing. Normally, mortgage lenders don’t like to refinance a mortgage unless you have significant equity (that is, you own a large share of the home). However, if the alternative is foreclosure, refinancing is usually a better deal for the bank.
- Loan Modification. In a loan modification, the lender alters the terms of your mortgage to make the payments more affordable. For example, it can lower your interest rate or extend the loan term. According to Nolo, small local banks are more likely to agree to loan modifications than big national banks.
- Forbearance. If your inability to meet mortgage payments is only temporary — for instance, if you were laid off from your job due to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic — the lender can agree to pause or reduce your mortgage payments for a while. In exchange, you promise to pay extra later to make up for the missed payments.
- Short Sale. In a short sale, you agree to sell your home for less than you owe on the mortgage, and the lender agrees to accept this smaller sum as full payment. A short sale hurts your credit as much as a foreclosure, but the process is easier. Some lenders actually require you to try a short sale before they’ll consider a loan modification.
Settling your debt with a creditor can be a huge relief, but it isn’t the end of the story. Making your final payment frees you from the debt, but you’re still on the hook for any extra tax you owe on the forgiven debt. So even once the debt is gone, you may still need to save money for a while to meet that obligation.
Also, your credit score will most likely take a hit from the process. There’s some good news here, though: if your debt woes were in any way due to the COVID-19 crisis, settling a debt won’t harm your credit. Under the 2000 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, any creditor who makes an accommodation for you due to problems caused by COVID-19 must report your account as “current” as long as you hold up your end of the bargain. That applies only to accounts that were in good standing before the pandemic hit.
Once you’re free from the burden of unmanageable debt, you can get to work on improving your credit. Steps that can help include paying bills on time, reducing the amount you charge on credit cards, and paying down other debts. If you no longer have any usable credit cards, consider applying for a secured card to rebuild your credit.
Have you ever negotiated with a creditor to lower your debt? Were you successful?