Your options for negotiating outstanding debt

The Credit Guy columnist Todd Ossenfort
Todd Ossenfort has been chief operating officer for Pioneer Credit Counseling since 1998. He writes our weekly "The Credit Guy" column, answering reader questions about credit counseling and debt issues.

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Question for the expert

Dear Credit Guy,
I hope you can help. I currently owe $50,000 on two Bank of America credit cards. I have never missed a payment or been late in 15 years with them. I now find myself in a difficult financial position and need to pay off the cards. I have spoken to them about settling for less, but don't want my credit impacted. Do I have any leverage at all to pay a fairly high percentage of the total debt without having them negatively affect my credit score? Help?!  -- Kris

Answer for the expert

Dear Kris,
Leverage with your creditor? No, none that is immediately evident from what you have written. You have been a customer for 15 years, and have paid on time and as agreed. You should be proud of yourself, but based on that information, the creditor is not likely to work with you unless you can prove that your financial situation has changed, and because of the change you would no longer be able to keep current with your payments. Creditors only make concessions when they believe you can no longer pay what you owe as agreed.

I understand and support wholeheartedly your efforts to keep your credit history and score intact. Keep in mind, however, that you may end up with a less-than-stellar credit history before everything is through.

It is difficult for most consumers to maintain an excellent credit history for the entire time they are using credit. Life happens, as they say, and many of the things life throws our way are reflected in our credit histories -- loss of a job, medical emergencies or a change in family circumstances, to name a few. If you do end up with a hit on your credit report as a result of your credit card balances, you won't be the first, the last or even the one with the highest balances. Your credit score will definitely improve as you work your way through your financial difficulty and you will look back at these times as a learning experience.

You do mention that you are in a difficult financial position. If your income has been dramatically reduced, then you may qualify for some assistance from the creditor that might not negatively affect your credit score. In my experience, settling is going to have a negative affect on your credit, period, end of story. A better idea may be to see if you can get your interest rate lowered through a Debt Management Program, so you can pay the principal that you owe and avoid taking a hit on your credit score. You can make the interest rate reduction request yourself or you can seek professional help from a qualified credit counselor at the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies or the National Foundation for Credit Counseling .

I recommend that you review your budget and determine if you can pay at least $1,000 toward your credit card debt each month. The Federal Reserve set guidelines for repayment programs that state the balance must be paid within a 60-month time period. In order for you to pay your balances on a repayment program, you would need to pay at least $1,000 per month. If you can afford a monthly payment of that amount or more, and can prove that you need the concessions from the program, you may qualify for a repayment program with Bank of America.

Just a friendly reminder for consumers who do decide to settle with their creditors -- any amount of debt forgiven that is more than $600 is then considered income by the IRS, and you will have to pay income taxes on the total forgiven amount.

Take care of your credit!

See related: Top credit card issuers back debt repayment plan, Card issuers more open to debt deals, but fewer qualify

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Updated: 11-20-2017