At its simplest, debt is money owed by one party to another. But it can get complicated fast. Depending on how much you have and how you handle it, debt can be a useful financial tool or baggage complicating your life.
Knowing how to handle your debt can be tricky, especially if you’re struggling to cover your monthly payments. There are different ways to approach each kind of debt — and there are ways to find debt relief. Just be wary of any company that over-promises or sounds too good to be true, such as debt forgiveness.
We break down the various forms of debt and how to handle them.
Secured vs. unsecured debt
There are two types of debt: secured and unsecured.
Secured debt means the borrower has pledged an asset as collateral for the loan. Auto loans and mortgages are common examples of secured debt. If you fail to repay as agreed, the creditor can seize the asset, for instance repossessing a car or foreclosing on a house.
Unsecured debt, on the other hand, is not backed by an asset. A common example is credit card debt. However, that doesn’t mean you get off scot-free if you fail to repay.
A credit card issuer, for instance, will likely sell your delinquent debt to a third-party debt collector, which may then hound you for payment. If you don’t pay the debt collector, it may sue you for payment, which can lead to wage garnishment. Some really aggressive original creditors may sue you directly, without using a collection agency.
Toggle through these forms of debt to learn more about what they are and how to handle them.
Americans’ total credit card debt reached an estimated $905 billion in 2017, according to NerdWallet’s annual American household credit card debt study. That’s up nearly 8% from the year before. And delinquencies are up, too, according to data from the Federal Reserve. This means consumers are carrying more debt, even as they’re having a harder time staying on top of payments.
Depending on your personal credit score, the annual percentage rates, or APRs, on your credit cards can be in the teens and 20s. Not paying off your full balance each month can get expensive, fast.
If you’re having trouble paying off your credit card debt, here are a few ways to handle it:
- Consider a debt management plan from a nonprofit credit counseling agency
- If you have multiple debts, see if you can consolidate them
- Look into a 0% intro APR balance transfer credit card
- Talk with a bankruptcy attorney to explore your options
Staying on top of medical bills can be hard. In fact, a 2017 study from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that medical bills were the most common reason people were contacted by debt collectors.
Here are a few ways to pay off your medical bills:
- Set up a payment plan
- Use a medical credit card
- Hire a medical bill advocate
No matter how strapped you are for cash to pay your medical bills, avoid putting the bill on a credit card. Most medical providers don’t charge interest; moving that debt to a credit card wipes out that advantage and can make it more expensive.
Student loans are either federal or private, with a variety of loan types between the two. Regardless of where the debt came from, you’ll likely be paying your student loans off for years to come.
You have a few ways to get help with student loan debt:
- Call your student loan servicer to discuss relief options
- Sign up for an income-driven repayment plan
- Apply for forgiveness, if you qualify
Be wary of any companies that promise full debt relief help — many are scams.
If you’re having trouble paying back your personal loan:
- Call the lender to see if you can defer payments or go on a hardship plan
- Consult the free help of a nonprofit credit counselor to better manage your budget
- Talk with a bankruptcy attorney if you’re facing too much debt
Here’s how to handle an expensive car loan:
But you have some recourse if you’re having trouble paying your mortgage:
But too much debt can put a crimp in your business cash flow and potentially put your business at risk.
If you’re facing steep debt, there are several ways you can get your business out of debt. They include:
- Boosting your sales
- Refinancing or consolidating your high-interest business debt
Knowing how to handle a debt in collections can be tricky, though. Here are some steps to follow if you’re being hounded by debt collectors:
- Brush up on your debt collection rights
- Don’t give in to pressure to make a quick payment
- Gather information on the debt
- Resolve the account — options include creating a payment plan, settling the debt or paying it in full
Debt payoff calculator