Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jun 19, 2018

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Once you accept the fact that you are in debt and come up with a detailed budget or spending plan, you are ready to start getting out of debt.

Step One: Stop Adding Debt

As an essential first step, most financial advisors will tell you to stop adding to your debt. That means putting away the credit cards to avoid the tempting buy-now-pay-later option. The average American family has a dozen or more credit and store cards. Take them out of your wallet or purse and put them out of reach, out of temptation. Better yet, cut them up. Then pay cash. If you can’t afford it, don’t buy it. But, with one exception. You should keep one credit card handy—preferably the one with the lowest interest rate and lowest amount due—for the occasional emergency, like an unexpected medical or repair bill, but use it for nothing else.

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Contact Your Creditors

Your next moves depend on the size of your debt; but in general, you can do a number of things yourself. For instance, you can contact your creditors, in person if possible, about renegotiating the terms of your debt. They may be willing to do this if some changes allow you to continue paying something on a regular basis. Speak only with a supervisor, a credit manager, or someone with authority, not just the person who happens to take your call. Ask about your options, whether there is a way you can pay less or stop paying interest, at least temporarily, whether you qualify for a lower interest rate, or whether you can work out a schedule that reduces payments to a level you can manage.

Ask for Reduced Payments

Some creditors, especially those with unsecured loans like credit cards, may agree to reduced payments if they believe you are acting in good faith, so it is worth a try. Be sure to keep a written records of your conversations, including the name and title of the person you speak with, the date and time, and a detailed summary of your agreement. Then send a copy, by certified mail with a return receipt, to the person you spoke with. Be sure to keep a copy of these records for yourself as well.

Try a Debt Management Program

If you are not confident about your ability to negotiate, or simply have too many different creditors, you may try a debt management program. With these programs, a financial counselor—who should be certified and trained—will contact your unsecured creditors and negotiate lower interest rates and waive fees. Once a debt management plan has been finalized, you make a monthly payment to the program that are distributed to your creditors, as agreed upon.

Before you sign any agreement for debt management, check to be sure you are dealing with a reliable firm. Insist on a regular statement that documents the amounts and dates of payments made to your creditors—if they are not made on time or payments are missed, you are responsible. Be sure to confirm exactly how much this service is costing you, at the beginning.

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Debt Consolidation & Refinancing

Up to this point, you are dealing with unsecured debt where no assets are at stake to guarantee payment. That changes with debt consolidation, which usually involves taking out a new loan to repay all the other debts. Refinancing a home or car, borrowing against a retirement account or insurance policy are typical ways to raise the money to pay off debts with a single payment. The lure is the convenience, the downside that the new loan—which should have a lower interest rate than the existing loans—must be paid on time, or the asset used to secure the loan may be forfeit.

A Last Resort Option: Bankruptcy

A final possibility is bankruptcy, but most financial advisors consider this an option that should only be used as a last resort.