Forget the old excuses, there are better ways to handle debt

Denise Sautters

Mortgage payments, utilities, credit cards, car payment -- the list goes on and on.

Too many bills and not enough income to pay them all? Are you finding yourself having to decide which bills to pay and which ones you just cannot afford?

Bill collectors say they’ve heard all the excuses, from “it slipped my mind,” to “I was busy” to “the check is in the mail.” They’re old and tired reasons.

“Some stories really strike me as odd,” said Victor Russell of Consumer Credit Counseling Service.

Among his favorites are:

- “I can’t read the credit card statement so I feel I shouldn’t have to pay.”

- “The investment (gambling) did not work (they didn’t win) and I won’t pay the debt due to not winning,”

- “If I pay creditors $5 per month, it will prevent collection activity, because at least I’m paying something rather than nothing.”

- “My parents always took care of my bills, so they should have taken care of them this time.”

- From an authorized user whose name isn’t on the credit card: “It’s not in my name, so I should not be liable.”

What is a collector to do?

“Our counselors always proceed with empathy and understanding with the client, then we objectively state how credit and collections actually work, including what rights they do have under federal and state laws, as well as what rights the creditors and collectors have under federal and state laws to collect the debt,” Russell said. “When this is understood we are usually able to provide an organized controlled program to help them reduce their debt with consistent repayment.”

Not just credit cards

If you are thinking the only people in debt are credit card users, think again. Credit card companies are not the only ones faced with deadbeats.

“We hear the same excuses over and over,” said Jill Zepp, vice president of the Credit Bureau of Stark County, Ohio, a medical collection agency. “The car payment is due, the satellite dish is due, cell phone bills ...

“We are the last on the list people want to pay,” she said. “When we are dealing with co-insurance payments, they (people) feel the doctor has been paid enough. Or, they say the doctor didn’t fix me, he didn’t cure me.”

The bottom line, she said, is that doctors will take payments.

“Doctors don’t want to turn patients over to us,” she said. “They are easy to work with, but people just think if they ignore the bill, it will go away. I know it sounds cliche, but it is true.”

The law

Bill Emley, an attorney at Buckingham Doolittle & Burroughs law firm in Jackson Township, Ohio, has also heard his share of excuses from people.

“A lot of times, they explain how things are tough and they don’t have enough money to go around,” he said, noting he makes collection calls for his clients. “They have other expenses they have to pay. The ones (excuses) that really irritate my clients are when they get the money from the insurance company and decided to spend the money on their kids, for a better Christmas (gifts). The money was sent directly to the individual rather than the person that provided the services. That is frustrating.”

He said almost all of his clients are willing to work with people, but many of them don’t get it.

“The sad thing is, these people get six, seven, eight chances to contact either my client or myself to work things out, and they put their head in the sand,” Emley said. “When we finally get to the point to attach their wages, the heavens open up and all hell breaks loose.”

Work it out

It doesn’t have to be that way, though, say the collectors. More often than not, creditors are willing to work with people, but communication is key.

The worst thing you can do is ignore a bill, because it isn’t going to go away on its own.

“If you are juggling payments, contact creditors, have a plan, and stick to it,” said Jay Seaton of Consumer Credit Counseling Services. “It is our mission to help people.”

Consumer Credit Counseling Services can help people keep their promises to creditors. Oftentimes, the pecking order is rent or house payments, then utilities.

“They need to be taken care of, then we begin to look at credit cards and other types of unsecured credit separately,” said Seaton, noting the agency has a debt test to help people understand how far into debt they might be.

The test is available on their Web site at

Reach Repository writer Denise Sautters at (330) 580-8321 or e-mail

Financial advice

If you are in debt, don’t panic. Here are suggestions from the Ohio Attorney General’s office about paying your bills and how to deal with debt collectors:

- Don’t just pay off the debt collector who is harassing you the most. Some debt is more risky than other debt. You should go over your finances before you start writing checks.

- Don't make any rash decisions. Put the money somewhere safe, like a federally insured bank or credit union. Take some time to think about how you can best use these funds.

- Make a list of everyone you owe money to, how much you owe, and the interest rate that you are paying.

- Seek the advice of a licensed financial planner or a debt counselor to help you decide what to pay. Although these professionals will charge (some on a sliding scale fee) for their advice, they may save you thousands in costly mistakes.

- Think about which bills are the most important. Catch up on mortgage or car payments first.

- Next, pay off electric or gas service bills, especially if you are facing a shutoff. Then deal with any other bills, such as credit cards or medical bills.

- When paying off credit cards start with the highest interest credit card and pay it off fully. Continue through all your credit cards and then close all those accounts except one or two with the lowest interest rates. Always pay them in full when the bill arrives.

- Put some money aside for future emergencies.

- Debt collectors may not threaten you or your family with harm, use obscene words when talking to you, contact you before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., contact you without saying who he or she is, or tell others about your debt.

- A debt collector must send you a letter within five days of contacting you, telling you the amount of money you owe and the name of the person or company you owe it to.

- If you are contacted by a debt collector and don’t owe the money, send a letter within 30 days. The debt collector must not contact you again and must send proof of why you owe the money before trying to collect again.

- You can tell them in writing not to contact you again, but this means

that they will probably take you to court.

- If a debt collector is harassing you, contact your local consumer protection agency or consumer credit counseling service for advice and assistance.