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Which Debts Should I Pay Off First?
If you are having serious financial problems, you probably
are having trouble keeping current on all of your debts. You can only cut
expenses so much, and your income cannot be stretched to cover all of your
obligations. This leaves you with no choice but to delay or eliminate payment on
certain of your debts.
One of the most important choices you will have to make is which debts to pay first. Your home or apartment, your utility service, your car, and even your household possessions may be at stake. Following the rules listed below may make the difference between keeping or losing this property.
Instead of delaying or eliminating certain debt repayments, you may be tempted to take out more debt to repay old debts. This is generally a bad idea.
Nevertheless, your main strategy in dealing with too much debt is deciding which debts to pay first, which you can refuse to pay, and which you can put off until later. The most important creditor to pay is not necessarily the creditor that screams the loudest or the most often. Creditors who yell the loudest often do so only because they have no better way to get their money than to pressure you to pay. Of more concern are creditors who not only threaten, but actually can take quick action against your residence, utility service, car, or other important assets.
You should direct your limited resources to what is most necessary for your family - - typically food, clothing, shelter and utility service. Unfortunately, there is no universally applicable list of the order in which debts should be paid. Everyone's situation will be different. Instead what follows are sixteen rules about how to set priorities.
Pay off creditors who can
take the quickest action to
hurt you, not those who are
calling you the most often. Pay your
mortgage or rent first; worry about
credit card or doctor bills later.
Always Pay Family Necessities First. Usually this means food
and essential medical expenses.
Next Pay Your Housing-Related Bills. Keep up your mortgage
or rent payments if at all possible. If you own your home, real estate taxes and
insurance must also be paid unless they are included in the monthly mortgage
payment. Similarly, any condo fees or mobile home lot payments should be
considered a high priority. Failure to pay these debts can lead to loss of your
If you are having very serious unresolvable financial problems which will require you to move to a cheaper residence, you might choose to stop paying the mortgage or rent on your existing residence. When you do so, you should not use that money to pay other debts, but rather save it as a fund to use for moving.
Pay What You Must to Keep Essential Utility Service. While
this may not always require full payment (such as during winter moratorium on
disconnections), whatever payments are necessary should be made if at all
possible. Working hard to keep your house or apartment makes little sense if it
is not livable because you have no utilities.
Pay Car Loans or Leases Next If You Really Need Your Car. If
you need your car to get to work or for other essential transportation, you will
usually make your car loan or lease payments next after food, housing costs, new
medical expenses, utilities, and clothing. You may even want to pay your car
loan first if the car is essential to holding onto your job.
If you do keep the car, stay current on your insurance payments as well. Otherwise the creditor may buy at your expense even more costly collision and theft insurance that gives you much less protection. In most states it is also illegal not to have automobile liability coverage. If you can do without your car or one of your cars, you not only save on car payments, but also on gasoline, repairs, insurance, and the like.
You Must Pay Child Support Debts. These debts will not go
away and can result in very serious remedies - including prison for nonpayment.
Income Tax Debts Are Also High Priority. You must pay any
income taxes you owe that are not automatically deducted from your wages, and
you certainly must file your federal income tax return even in you cannot afford
to pay any balance due. The government has many collection rights, particularly
if you do not file your tax return, that are not available to other creditors.
Remember, though, if you have lost income due to a change of circumstances, your
tax obligations will also be reduced. Pay only what is necessary.
Loans Without Collateral Are Low Priority. Most credit card
debts, attorney, doctor and hospital bills, and other debts to professionals,
open accounts with merchants, and similar debts are low priority. You have not
pledged any collateral for these loans, and there is rarely anything that these
creditors can do to hurt you in the short term. Many won't bother to try to
collect in the long term.
Loans With Only Household Goods Collateral Are Also Low Priority.
Sometimes a creditor requires you to put some of your household goods up as
collateral on a loan. You should generally treat this loan the same as an
unsecured debt, that is as a low priority. Creditors rarely seize household
because they have little market value, it is hard to seize them without court
process, and it is time consuming and expensive to use a court process to seize
Do Not Move a Debt Up in Priority Because the Creditor
Threatens Suit. Many threats to sue are not carried out. Even if the
creditor does sue, it will take a while for the collector do be able to reach
your property, and much of your property may be exempt from seizure. On the
other hand, non-payment of rent, mortgage and car debts may result in immediate
loss of your home or car.
Do Not Pay When You Have Good Legal Defenses to Repayment.
Some examples of legal defenses are that goods purchased were defective, or that
the creditor is asking for more money than it is entitled to. If you have a
legal defense, you should obtain legal advice to determine whether your defense
will succeed. In evaluating these options, remember that it is especially
dangerous to withhold mortgage or rent payments without legal advice. However,
for all debts you should consider fighting back when you have a valid defense.
Court Judgments Against You Move Debt Up in Priority, But Often Less
Than You Think. After a collector obtains a court judgment, that debt
often should move up in priority, because the creditor can enforce that judgment
by asking the court to seize certain of your property, wages, and bank accounts.
Nevertheless, how serious a threat this really is will depend on your state's
law, the value of your property, and your income. It may be that all your
property and wages are protected under state law. Then you should pay this debt
only after more pressing obligations.
Student Loans Are Medium Priority Debts. They should
generally be paid ahead of low priority debts, but after top priority debts.
Most student loans are backed by the United States and federal law provides
special collection remedies against you, such as seizure of your tax refunds and
denying you new student loans and grants that are not available for other types
Debt Collection Efforts Should Never Move Up a Debt's
Priority. Be polite to the collector, but make your own choices about
which debts to pay based on what is best for your family. Debt collectors are
unlikely to give you good advice. Debt collectors may be most aggressive to get
you to pay debts which you should actually pay last. You can easily stop debt
collection contacts and you have legal remedies to deal with collection
Threats to Ruin Your Credit Record Should Never Move Up a
Debt's Priority. In many cases, when a collector threatens to report
your delinquency to a credit bureau, the creditor has already provided the
credit bureau with the exact status of the delinquency. And, if the creditor has
not done so, a collector hired by the creditor is very unlikely to do so. In
fact, your mortgage lender, your car creditor, and other big creditors are much
more likely to report your delinquency (without any threat) than is a debt
collector that threatens you about your credit record.
Cosigned Debts Should Be Treated Like Your Other Debts. If
you have put up your home or car as collateral on a loan you have cosigned, that
is a high priority debt for you if the other co-signers are not keeping the debt
current. If you have not put up such collateral, treat cosigned debts as a lower
priority. If others have cosigned for you and you are unable to pay the debt,
you should tell your cosigner about your financial problems so that he or she
can decide what to do about that debt.
Refinancing Is Rarely the Answer. You should always be
careful about refinancing. It can be very expensive and it can give creditors
more opportunities to seize your important assets. A short term fix can lead to
long term problems.
Return To Managing Your Debt
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