There's no easy way to make debt disappear

Don't believe those ads for debt elimination

To Her Credit columnist Sally Herigstad
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). She writes "To Her Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for, and also wrote for MSN Money, and, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

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Question for the expert

Dear To Her Credit,
Hello, I need help fast. We just received notice of a $4,000 garnishment from my husband's payroll that will be taken out over the next four months. I want to know where I can go to get help. I would like a debt counselor to help us find a legitimate company to help us eliminate our debt for the next year or two -- Gina

Answer for the expert

Dear Gina,
Finding a debt counselor is easy. Finding one who can eliminate or suspend your debts for the next year or two, without you filing for bankruptcy or making payments on those debts, is impossible. No one has magical power to make your debts go away.

It's no wonder many people think some kind of debt elimination is possible, however. Anyone who listens to the radio or looks at popup ads on the Internet might think companies were lining up to take people's debt problems away. Some ads prey on people's hopes that the government will come to their rescue, like the Obama Debt Bailout Program scam.

Other ads and articles on the Internet claim debt elimination is possible because our entire banking system and "government" is a fraud. Yes, they put quotation marks around the word government. Funny, no one thinks the banking system is so bad when they're spending the banks' money; only when they have to pay it back. And the same article that didn't seem to believe in our government quoted FTC rules protecting debtors. It sounds like they want it both ways!

The simple truth is: Companies that promise to eliminate your debts with some secret program, government or otherwise, are scams. Stay away from them. They'll only take your personal information and your money. In the meantime, your problems will only get worse.

Here's what to do about your $4,000 debt and garnishment:

Your state generally has a form you can use to claim exemptions from wage garnishment. The form is generally available at the nearest small claims clerk or the sheriff's or marshal's office, or online. Filing this form protects your basic living expenses from garnishment, but hurry -- the form must be filed within a certain number of days from the time you receive the notice. After you file the claim, the court decides how much of your husband's pay is required for living expenses and cannot be garnished.

Next, find ways to get by on your reduced income for the next four months. Here are some ways you might be able to do that:

  • Stop all unnecessary expenses. No eating out (not even fast food or cafeteria lunches), no movies, no new video games or electronics, no clothes for anyone past the growing stage until the four months are up. Cancel Internet subscriptions, cable TV, gym memberships.
  • Sell something. If you have a newer car, sell it and buy an old, serviceable one. Your mechanic can tell you which ones are the most dependable. If you have two cars, sell one. Have a garage sale.
  • Work extra hours. You and your husband might be able to volunteer for more hours at work, or pick up some extra income delivering pizza, babysitting, doing fall yard cleanup, and so on.

An accredited counseling agency can show you options for dealing with your debt and help you avoid problems like this in the future.  Choose a credit counselor from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling or the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies. With hard work and the sound financial principles you learn from a credit counselor, you can eliminate debt the right way -- by paying it off.

See related: Don't fall for the 'Obama debt bailout program' scam, 8 steps to picking a credit counselor, Take these steps to avoid wage garnishment

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Updated: 11-22-2017