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Debt Reduction

National averages for credit card and other consumer debt can be a good barometer of consumers’ financial capacity and goals. For instance, when debt decreases, Americans, as a whole, may be spending less and saving more. Of course, that’s a good thing.

So, when SmartAsset released its average credit card debt study recently, we took notice. The survey looked at median individual income and credit card data from 2006 to 2016. It even broke down the data by state!

trend

What did the survey find? Here are some of the topline results and what they might mean for consumers like you:

Americans were dropping credit card debt… but now they’re reversing that trend.

The data show that from 2006 to 2015, the average total credit card debt went from about $3,175 per person to $2,800 per person. Total credit card debt dropped — in every region except Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. — during this time period.

What does that 11.6% decrease mean? It’s hard to say exactly. But it could have been a result of the financial crisis, and people understanding how dangerous credit card debt can be during a time of personal financial upheaval.

During this time, though, there was a peak in the average credit card debt. In 2008, the average debt was $3,670, and the average American had debt equal to about 14% of their annual income! From that high point, we started cutting back on credit card debt quickly and efficiently. This is definitely a good thing.

So for several years, Americans were dropping debt at a significant rate. But then, a new trend happened.

The average credit card debt bottomed out at $2,730 in 2014, bouncing back up to $2,800 in 2015. Over this same time period, the total national credit card debt rose from $733 billion to $799 billion. So, is this the new normal?

It’s hard to say. But the report speculates that the Great Recession incentivized Americans to lower their credit card debt. But once the recession turned around, Americans seem to have forgotten the struggle and gone back to their old ways… taking on significant amounts of credit card debt.

What does it meant for consumers?

Boiling complex statistics, in a survey like this one, down to a few talking points is risky. The challenge is to avoid reading too much into the results. With that said, I think there are a few lessons that financially savvy consumers could take away from this study.

 

It’s all too easy to go back to bad habits.

What we see here in these trends is that, when given a big enough push, Americans are capable of buckling down and paying off debt. In some states, credit card debt levels shrunk by 30% or more, during and right after the Great Recession!

Necessity tends to breed discipline, in finances as in everything else. But when that necessity is no longer spurring you on, what happens? It’s way too easy to go back to former bad habits.

Time will tell whether the recent uptick in debt levels is a trend that will continue. But it does show that once the worst of the crisis is over, people may be willing to slide back to where they were before.

If you really want to change your habits, whether in the realm of personal finance, your health, or elsewhere, you have to keep going. And that means even after the crisis that spurred your change has passed!

 

We should all be prepared for the worst, at any time.

If consumers had known beforehand that the Great Recession was coming, do you think they would have had thousands of dollars in credit card debt lying around? For many, probably not!

It’s easy to live large when things are good, and not to worry too much about things like credit card debt. After all, you can afford the payments, so what’s the big deal? The problem is that you never know what’s just around the bend.

Illness, stock market crashes, job loss, and other disasters can strike at any time. While you don’t want to live in a doom-and-gloom mindset, it’s best to be prepared. And, financially, this means being as debt-free as possible and having emergency savings available.

 

Focusing on staying out of credit card debt is still important.

Personal finance blogs like this one have been around for decades now, but many people still need to go back to the basics. One of those basics is the importance of paying off credit card debt.

Sure, sometimes taking on credit card debt can be justified. But it’s important to pay it off as quickly and efficiently as possible. Otherwise, you run the risk of trying to pay down such debt while you’re already in the middle of a crisis.

So, what’s your story from the Great Recession? Did your credit card debt go down? Are you letting it slide back up again? Tell us in the comments.

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It’s a good thing I’ve been saving a good portion of my income for the past year. Even with making estimated tax payments — the last of which was due on January 16 — I still have a significant tax bill this year, thanks to increased income.

Many taxpayers dread filing their taxes, even if they receive a refund from the IRS. It’s often a time-consuming process that can be fairly stressful. Plus, pressing Submit on your electronic return (or licking the stamp of your paper return) can bring out fears and anxiety over the possibility of an audit, no matter how diligent you were about your records.

Some people, like me, have a stronger reason for the lack of anticipation: we will end up owing money. And for those who haven’t saved enough money throughout the year, this is a dreaded situation.

TAX BILL

What If You Can’t Afford Your Tax Bill?

First of all, you don’t want to owe the IRS money. This type of debt is one of the hardest types to erase. There is no statute of limitations on IRS debt, either, so it won’t just go away on its own if ignored long enough. Even if you declare bankruptcy, it’s very difficult to get rid of tax debt.

Related: How to Adjust Your Witholdings for a $0 Return

Sometimes taxpayers receive a notification saying they owe money, but it might not be accurate. The IRS is a system subject to human error, just like any other agency. You can dispute the amount you owe if it doesn’t match your records and you have a reason to believe your calculation is correct.

Need More Time to File? How to Get an Extension on Your Taxes

The government is sensitive to the issue of whether you can afford to pay, so they’re willing to work with you a little bit. The best option is to avoid using a credit card to pay your debt, which would ordinarily be many consumers’ first choice. When you file your taxes, don’t pay online at that time if you can’t afford it in cash. Instead, wait until after you submit your form and it’s accepted by the IRS. Then, visit the IRS website to file an Online Payment Agreement.

If you take long enough, the IRS will send you a tax due notification, but there’s no need to wait for that to arrive. If you have your adjusted gross income (AGI) from your tax return, the amount you owe, and, of course, your Social Security number, you can get started. The form will first ask you how much you can pay and when you can pay it. Then, it will come up with a payment plan that works for you.

The payment plan will allow you to spread your tax bill out over a longer period of time. This improves the chances that paying your bill won’t cause you a financial hardship, and the IRS still manages to collect the monies due —  a win-win in their book. There is a fee for creating a payment plan, ranging from $43 to to $225.

If your financial hardship is only temporary, the IRS may delay collection, though interest and late fees will still be added to your bill. The IRS could also file a federal tax lien, even if they delay collection. This means your property could become property of the government in order to satisfy your debt.

The last line of negotiation with the IRS is an Offer in Compromise. There are only a few situations in which the IRS will accept a lower tax payment than what they believe is due. If the IRS believes you’ll never be able to satisfy your tax liability, but you agree to the amount you owe, an Offer in Compromise might satisfy the IRS.

If there is legitimate doubt about the tax bill — this will usually happen only in complicated situations — the IRS might consider an Offer in Compromise. Also, if you could afford your tax bill, but paying it would create a significant economic hardship, the IRS might consider an Offer in Compromise for you, as well. This is only in exceptional circumstances.

Because the IRS does charge you interest and penalties when you don’t pay in full or on time, the best solution is to pay the bill in full as soon as possible to reduce these extra costs, even if you agree to payment plans. I prefer the above options over other payment types (such as a high interest credit card) when cash isn’t available at the time the bill is due. However, the IRS offers these additional suggestions:

I’m not a big fan of any of these, but it is important to take care of your IRS debt above many other financial priorities.

Have you ended up with a big tax bill you couldn’t immediately pay? What was your plan of action?

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In your personal finance journey, you may or may not have come across peer-to-peer (P2P) lending platforms. The great news is, these have proven to be solid investments over the past few years, providing much higher returns than what you could earn on bank investments. But we have to wonder:  will P2P platforms continue to be reliable investments, particularly if the economy begins to weaken?

p2p

Since P2P lending only got its start in the early 2000s, we don’t have a particularly strong or reliable track record to fall back on. The first platforms only began coming on line as the last recession – the Financial Meltdown – was unfolding. So while they have been a picture of success since their inception, we don’t really know how they’ll hold up under pressure.

What Effect a Weakening Economy Might have on P2P Lending

In the absence of any substantial performance data from the last recession, we can only speculate what effect a weak economy will have on P2P lending. But we can rely on the general performance of loans in past recessions for strong clues.

When the economy declines, asset prices fall and unemployment rises. In turn, default rates on virtually all types of loans rise. Since P2P loans are unsecured and taken for a variety of purposes, they most closely relate to credit cards.

According to the Federal Reserve, credit card default rates were at 2.34% at the end of 2016. However, they hit a high of 6.77% during the second quarter of 2009, in the middle of the Financial Meltdown.

While P2P loans are priced to accommodate certain default levels, they are based on the most recent default experience. Should default rates rise to something close to what they were in 2009, P2P loans priced based on today’s default rates will likely suffer disproportionate losses in interest rate return.

The Flood of Institutional Money Might Weaken Lending Standards

The basic concept of P2P lending is simple. Individual borrowers come to lending sites in search of loans, which will ultimately be funded by individual investors. But as interest rates have continued low, institutional participation in P2P lending has grown, as banks and other large lenders seek higher returns. For example, Lending Club recently reported that banks funded 31% of loan originations in the fourth quarter of 2016, compared with 13% in the third quarter.

One of the concerns over increased institutional participation is loan quality. As institutions bring larger amounts of capital into the space, loan quality may decline. That can happen as P2P lenders lower underwriting standards in order to draw in a larger number of loans. As they do, the quality of those loans will gradually decline, eventually increasing the rate of default.

It remains to be seen if that will play out as a worst-case scenario. However, not only is the industry itself relatively new, but institutional participation is only very recent. That means that the impact of greater institutional participation has yet to be felt.

Lending Club’s 2016 Scandal

In May of 2016, Lending Club’s CEO, Renaud Laplanche, was forced to resign amid a scandal. A summary of the event disclosed that:

Lending Club conducted a review, under the supervision of a sub-committee of the board of directors and with the assistance of independent outside counsel and other advisors, regarding non-conforming sales to a single, accredited institutional investor of $22 million of near-prime loans. The loans in question failed to conform to the investor’s express instructions as to a non-credit and non-pricing element. Certain personnel apparently were aware that the sale did not meet the investor’s criteria…The review further discovered another matter unrelated to the sale of the loans, involving a failure to inform the board’s Risk Committee of personal interests held in a third party fund while the Company was contemplating an investment in the same fund.

Since Laplanche’s resignation, earnings have gone negative three quarters in a row. What’s more, the pattern of losses are expected to continue through 2017. The company is forecasting losses of $69 million to $84 million, on revenue in the range of $565 million to $595 million for the year. The company cites the loss of investors in the aftermath of last year’s scandal.

We should reasonably expect that Lending Club, as the largest platform in the P2P space, will recover. However the episode should serve as a warning that the development of P2P lending won’t necessarily be an elevator ride straight up. With the number of P2P lenders increasing steadily, there are bound to be more negative surprises.

Read More About Reducing Risk With Lending Club here.

That might make a strong case for spreading your P2P investments across several lending platforms.

The Nature of P2P Loans Themselves

Despite the positive overall performance of P2P lending over the past few years, the practice contains two built-in issues.

The first is the fact that the loans are largely comprised of debt consolidation loans. Though such a loan can potentially improve a borrower’s financial situation by lowering the interest rate and monthly payment that he or she is paying, it also holds the potential to borrow even more money.

For example, many borrowers engage in serial debt consolidation. They have a few credit cards, and then do a debt consolidation to lower the monthly payment. But one or two years into the debt consolidation, and they rack up more credit cards. Eventually, there’s another debt consolidation – and maybe even a third, and a fourth.

From a risk standpoint, the problem is that the borrower is never actually paying off debt. Often, the debt consolidation simply sets the stage for the next round of borrowing. As that cycle continues, the risk of default on the latest debt consolidation loan increases.

The second major concern is that most P2P loans are unsecured. Borrowers can typically take loans as high as $40,000, and for nearly any purpose, without having to put up any collateral. In the event of a loan default, there will be no assets to seize in order to satisfy the debt.

In an economy with low unemployment, low interest rates, and rising asset prices, neither issue is a major concern. But when the economy eventually weakens, both run more than a slight chance of becoming more pronounced.

Positioning Your P2P Portfolio for Leaner Times

All of this should be a reminder that P2P lending, like virtually all other types of investing, is not completely risk-free. And despite recent healthy performance, the situation could change — and change dramatically — in the event of an economic slowdown.

None of this is to discourage investing in P2P lending. Since the next recession is virtually inevitable, though, now is the time to prepare your investments for a change in circumstances.

Prepare Now: Sweat In Up Markets So You Don’t Bleed In Down Markets

How can you protect yourself?

  • As noted earlier, consider investing on several P2P lending platforms. That will minimize the risks associated with any one platform.
  • Don’t use P2P investing as a substitute for the fixed income portion of your portfolio. Instead, make it part of your fixed income investments, to offset and increase the lower rates paid on traditional but safer fixed income investments. You should have both P2P and traditional fixed income investments.
  • Invest across various risk grades, despite the fact that returns may be higher on the weaker grades. Lending Club’s Statistics page (“Loan Performance Details” chart) shows that default rates increase substantially with each lower credit grade.

In regard to the last item in particular, it’s important to realize that default rates are likely to increase more dramatically in the lower credit grades in the face of a bad economy. Those are, after all, the highest risk loans being made.

We don’t have much information available as to how well P2P investing performed in the last recession. But that makes it even more important, at this late stage of the current economic recovery, to make some reasonable assumptions about what’s likely to play out. This will allow us to best prepare for it.

How do you think P2P investing will do when the economy takes the next nosedive?

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Along with losing weight, getting out of debt is the most popular New Year’s resolutions in the United States. This resolution, like all others, unfortunately tends to be forgotten within weeks. Well, if you resolved to get out of debt this year — and haven’t yet abandoned that idea now that we are at the end of January– here are some ideas for not losing sight of the goal.

CLIMB DEBT

Don’t focus on zero debt, focus on financial freedom

Debt is at worst slavery; at best, it’s willful indentured servitude.

Say your family takes home $2,500 per month from your job after taxes, but your credit cards, loans, and rent/mortgage total $2,000 each month. This means that you work only one-fifth of your hours for yourself. The remaining four-fifths of your time at your job is exclusively for your creditors. You might as well just hand your paycheck over or work off your debt directly with the credit card companies.

Unlike slavery, though, you are free to leave this arrangement (your job) at any time. You just need to simply quit and look for another job with a pay increase. However, that is not always a simple or practical solution.

If it motivates you, think about what you would do with your freedom from debt. Without having to pay credit card companies, you would have the freedom to choose where your take-home pay goes. If you want to save up for a vacation, place pictures of your favorite getaway spot around your house.

Replace bad habits

Excessive shopping can be a habit. Many compulsive shoppers who go into debt do so because shopping helps them deal with difficult emotions like anger, frustration, and stress. The excitement of shopping helps to temporarily improve a person’s mood. But this habit can be replaced with a healthier alternative.

If starting a shopping trip helps you deal with difficult emotions, replace shopping with jogging, running, or another physical activity. While the act of spending money improves the mood of habitual shoppers, physical activity improves anyone’s mood. This is due to endorphins — natural, mood-altering chemicals released by the body in both situations.

Make getting out of debt fun

The concept of “fun” is personally subjective. One thing that I find fun, someone else might find mundane.

For example: when I was in debt, I liked watching the colorful monthly reporting graphs in Microsoft Money get close to crossing the x-axis of $0 net worth. I fully understand that might not motivate everyone the same way.

Related: How and Why to Track Your Net Worth

Rewards can be great motivators, too — just make sure they aren’t big rewards that will impact your finances negatively. Paying off a student loan and then blowing $200 on a steak and lobster dinner, for example, isn’t very smart. Do something small, yet still enjoyable. You could treat yourself to a movie night every time you pay off a credit card, or plan that weekend hike that you’ve been meaning to do. Celebrate at every possible milestone, but within reason.

Visualize your debt reduction

Losing weight is easy to visualize. Improving finances? Not quite so easy. I’ve seen videos posted online involving time-lapse photography to illustrate weight loss over time. One photograph is taken each week at the same location and in the same position, so when played consecutively from start to finish, the change over time is apparent. You may not realize it, but you can do the same with your debt.

Here are a few visualization tips:

  • When you pay off a credit card, cut it up using a shredder. Save the plastic confetti in a bag and watch it expand as you blow through card after card.
  • Look at your credit card statements before you go to sleep each night. The bad dreams you have will subside when your statements are small enough that they don’t cause anxiety.
  • Here is an extreme option, for those who REALLY need a motivator: If you’ve paid off 20% of your mortgage, paint 80% of your house in a color you don’t like. Once a year, determine how much more you’ve paid off, and paint the corresponding amount in a color you do like. You’ll be encouraged to pay off your mortgage in full just so you can live in a house painted the way you prefer.

Learn More: Should You Ever Cancel a Credit Card?

Do something positive every day. The key to making a resolution stick is to keep it in front of you every day. If your loan or credit card allows you, and if you are not charged an extra fee, make small payments every day before you go to work. Look at your net worth in Mint if it reminds you of your goal. Work an extra hour if it means you’ll get more money for paying off your debt.

Recruit your family and friends. Having a support system is vital, but many people don’t want to let people know about their financial troubles. I think it’s important to have at least one person you trust to talk to about financial issues. It helps to share goals like this because they are often not real until they are spoken out loud with a witness. If no one is aware of your goal to pay off debt, it’s easier to admit defeat without first offering 110 percent of your effort.

Consider your financial options. To truly get started you need to make some financial decisions. It is true that anything you do is better than nothing, but you need to have a plan. First, can you consolidate your debt onto one low-rate card? Call your credit card issuers and ask; the phone numbers are on the back of each credit card. Do you qualify for a loan through a peer-to-peer network? If you have a good credit score, you might find favorable loan terms.

Decide how fast you want to get out of debt and how much you want to pay. If you want to pay the least and succeed the fastest, you’ll want to examine the Debt Avalanche method. If you believe that a small success earlier on the path is important to keep you motivated, check out the Debt Snowball. Research your options and give it thorough thought.

What tips do you have for keeping a resolution to get out of debt?

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The Financial Checklist Manifesto

by Jeff

There are so many different ways to organize, prioritize, and classify your tasks and responsibilities. You’d probably need a couple years just to sort through all of them on your own. You can have an organizer on your computer, your phone, in your pocket, or a notebook. If you’re short of paper, you can just […]

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9 ways to reduce student loan debt before you owe

by Richard Barrington

It’s late May, and a new crop of students is preparing to go on to college. One of my less pleasant memories was the agonizing process of securing financing so I could pursue my degree. Though it’s many years later, I’d like to share what I learned that can make paying student loans more manageable […]

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Balance Transfer Cards for Fair, Average or Excellent Credit

by Richard Barrington

[Editorial note: This offer was last updated on July 13, 2016.] Are you still wrestling down holiday debt? Zero-interest balance transfer credit card offers can help you meet this challenge, but only if you know what to look for. Otherwise, you will end up paying interest anyway, which is exactly what the credit card companies […]

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Psychological Advantages of the Debt Avalanche

by Luke Landes
Debt Snowball

The realist in me recognizes that the best plan for getting out of debt is any plan that allows someone to achieve that goal. The realist is constantly at odds with the optimist in me, the part of me that wants people to be high achievers, to strive for excellence, and to seek an informed […]

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Do Something About Debt

by Donna Freedman
Credit card debt

This is a guest article by Donna Freedman. Donna has been a staff writer for MSN Money and Get Rich Slowly. She now lives and writes the frugal life in Anchorage, Alaska for Money Talks News and her own blog, Surviving and Thriving. Got debt? Do something about it. That’s the focus of a new […]

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Capital One 360 Customer Service: Unsolved Issue With Customer’s Mortgage

by Luke Landes
Capital One 360

When Capital One purchased ING Direct and ultimately rebranded the bank as “Capital One 360,” long-time customers of the online bank asked the same questions. Would Capital One continue ING Direct’s tradition of competitive rates and excellent customer service? Not everyone’s experience with ING Direct has been perfect, but overall, the bank was as beloved […]

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