How to Find Out How Much Debt You Have
Most U.S. consumers have a variety of debt, ranging from credit card accounts, auto loans, medical debt, student debt, personal loans, a mortgage and more. As years go by, it can be hard to keep track of it all.
Knowing how much debt you owe, though, is the first important step to getting a handle on paying it off, particularly if you are behind in payments or you have debt in collections.
U.S. household debt topped $16.51 trillion in 2022, an increase of more than $2.36 trillion since the end of 2019. The percentage of accounts that have gone from on-time payments to late payments, particularly credit card accounts and auto loans, rose in 2022, with the sharpest increase for those whose payments are 90 days late or more.
Finding out how much debt you owe, and whether you have debt in collections, and coming up with a strategy to pay, will put you in control. The positive results from getting a handle on your debt will feel much better than the stress and negative impact of ignoring it.
No matter how dire your debt situation, there are resources that can help you find all of your debt, and debt relief programs that eliminate debt.
How to Find All Your Debts
It can be hard to keep track of and manage, debt. Most people have several types of accounts that come with different rules for making payments, what happens if you don’t pay, and more. One rule they all have in common, though, is that if you don’t pay, you are penalized.
Some debt is hard to lose track of. The bank that holds your mortgages or auto loan will let you know early and often if you are behind. But other debt can fall through the cracks. A medical bill, retail store credit card, a one-time debt to buy a product can all fall through the cracks, particularly if you’ve changed addresses. When they do eventually find you, the financial penalty may be severe. You are better off finding them first. Determining what debts you owe and how much is the first step toward getting on solid financial footing.
The most common types of debt are:
Let’s take a look at how to find out what debts you owe.
Check Your Credit Report
Most of your debt is listed on your credit report, which you can get a free copy of once a year from each of the three credit bureaus – Experian, Equifax and Transunion – at annualcreditreport.com.
The credit bureauscompile reports based on input from your creditors. Lenders don’t always report to all three credit bureaus, so get all three reports to find the debt you owe. The reports list your debts and payments, with payments 30, 60 and 90 days behind highlighted. They also show debts in collection. Closed accounts stay on for 10 years, unless you defaulted, then they stay on for seven years. The credit bureaus also supply a credit score, which is a snapshot of how good you are at paying debt, with 300-600 a poor score. 601-720 a good score ad anything above 720 is excellent.
Contact Your Creditors
Much of what’s on your credit report will be familiar to you. It sometimes can take a month or more for a creditor to report, so your balances may not be exactly what you see when you check an account online, but they should make sense to you. Creditor contact information is listed on your report. If you see debt or a balance that is not familiar, contact the creditor named in the report to find out more. If it’s not clear on the report, the creditor can also tell you whether they still have the debt or if it’s been sold to a debt collection agency.
Find Debts Not Listed on Your Credit Report
You may have debt that’s not listed on your credit reports. It’s unusual for credit card, auto loan and mortgage debt not to appear, but medical debt, retail credit card accounts, and rent to a property management company may not show up until it goes into collections. Even then, it may not appear.
It can be difficult to find debt that’s not listed on a credit report. If you have mail you’ve never opened, go through it and see if there are bills you overlooked. Check voicemails that you never listened to. If you think you never paid a medical bill or forgot about a retail credit card, call the billing office of the business to check. It’s better to be proactive when trying to find debt you may owe than to be unexpectedly contacted by a debt collector. You can also call a nonprofit credit counseling agency. The session is free, and a counselor can help you find debt you owe.
How to Pay Your Debts Once You Find Them
Once you find all your debts, it takes a focused strategy to pay them back. This is true no matter what your income, but the less money you have, the more important a solid payback plan is.
The steps in this strategy should include:
- Verify your debt. Make sure you owe it and that the balances are correct. Dispute collections, or other debt, if you don’t owe it.
- Check the statute of limitations. Every state has a statute of limitations on debt, which gives the creditor a time limit on taking you to court. Once the statute expires, collectors can still seek repayment, but can’t file suit. The statute is for the state you live in, not the one the creditor is in.
- Create a monthly budget. Knowing how much money you have every month to pay down debt is essential to staying on track.
- Work with creditors. Most creditors would rather find a way to help you pay what you owe than send your debt to collections. Don’t be afraid to call and ask about options if you can’t afford monthly payments.
- Cut expenses and don’t acquire new debt. Take a serious look at what you can cut from your budget. Try to stop using credit and don’t apply for new credit. Paying in cash can be tough, but is a good way to rein in spending.
- Choose a repayment method. There are many ways to tackle debt, depending on your situation and mindset. Debt avalanche, for instance, focuses on paying the highest-interest debt first; debt snowball focuses on paying off the lowest balance first. There is no “wrong” choice. The right choice is the one that works for you and pays down your debt.
- Double down on repayment. When a repayment method begins to work, you have more available money in your monthly budget. Put the extra towards bigger payments on the remaining debt.
How to Pay Debt in Collections
If you have debt in collections, you don’t have to worry too much about finding them, because they will more than likely find you.
If you can’t pay debt in collections, a call to a nonprofit credit counseling agency like InCharge Debt Solutions can help you sort out your finances and offer debt relief options.
How Debt Collection Works
Creditors can send a debt to a debt collection agency once it’s 180 days late. The debt collection agency’s sole job is to get you to pay, which is how they make money. Once your debt is in collections, you can expect your phone to ring constantly.
You should get information about the debt that’s being collected in a validation letter, which is required to have:
- The name of the original creditor
- The debt collection agency’s name and address
- The account number
- How much you currently owe, itemized to show fees and interest that have accrued
- What your rights are and how to dispute the debt
These letters are also required to include a tear-off form that allows you to easily dispute the debt. There’s a deadline to do it, so do it ASAP if you think the debt is not valid.
How to Pay Collections
A debt collector will seek the entire balance you owe, as well as fees and interest, in a lump sum, but you can often negotiate this to a lower amount.
How to pay off a debt in collections depends on the collection agency, some will negotiate an installment payment, some won’t. Be sure you have verified the debt and amount owed is accurate, and know how much you can pay and when you can pay it before you make contact with the company. The statute of limitations on the debt originally began when you made your last payment. Making any type of payment to the debt collection company will reset the statute of limitations.
Your Rights with Debt Collections
You have rights against debt collectors backed up by the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act. The FDCPA covers how debt collectors communicate with consumers, what information they must provide, and more. Some of the major protections are:
- They must mail you a validation letter within five days of acquiring your debt.
- They can’t make false claims about what you owe or what the penalties are.
- They can’t use abusive language or threaten arrest.
- You can ask they only contact you in certain ways, or not at all.
- They can only call between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m.
- They can’t contact family or friends, except to verify your address and work information.
- If they contact you privately through social media, they must reveal they’re a debt collector.
Be an Informed Debtor
Not all debt collectors follow the rules. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau received 58,834 complaints about debt collectors in 2022. Added to that, consumers may not recognize that a debt collector is violating the law. For instance, the CFPA found in 2022 that a number of collectors for auto loan servicers told those who owed money that their driver’s license or car registration would be suspended if they didn’t pay. This isn’t true. The CFPA also found collectors continued to harass people on the phone after the person they were calling said they felt harassed or uncomfortable, and asked them to stop. They also continued to erroneously call people who had a name similar to someone who owed a debt. If you have debt in collections, or are behind with payments, read the law and make sure you’re being treated fairly. Report violations to the CFPA.
What to Do If You Can’t Afford to Pay Your Debts
Debt doesn’t go away unless you do something about it. If you ignore it, it gets worse. If you can’t afford to pay your debts, there are solutions. Which debt relief option is best for you depends on how much you owe, your income and other factors. Your options include:
- Credit Counseling: No matter what debt relief solution you choose, it should start with a nonprofit credit counseling agency. The counselor will go over your finances, help you create a budget and review all debt relief options. There is no charge for this service.
- Debt management plan: Debt management programs offered by nonprofit credit counseling agencies can eliminate debt in 3-5 years. They are not a loan. The counseling agency works with your creditors to lower interest rates, and you make one fixed monthly payment to the agency, which pays down your balances. This is a great solution for people with a lot of high-interest credit card debt.
- Debt consolidation: Those with high-interest debt and a good credit score may benefit from a debt consolidation loan, which has lower interest than credit cards. Offered by most banks, credit unions and online lenders, the loan pays off credit card balances. You repay the loan with fixed monthly amounts, generally for 3-5 years. A debt consolidation loan can be a slippery slope, though, if you continue to use credit cards, thereby owing the loan payment as well as credit card payments.
- Debt settlement: For-profit debt settlement companies negotiate with your creditors for lower balances, while you pay into an escrow account. Once they settle on a sum, which can take 2-3 they pay your creditors the agreed-to amount. Fees and penalties can make this a costly solution, and since full balances weren’t paid, it’s a negative mark on your credit report for seven years.
- Credit card debt forgiveness: Nonprofit credit counseling agencies offer a different form of debt settlement, known as credit card forgiveness, in which you pay 50%-60% of what you owe, in 36 monthly payments. At InCharge Debt Solutions, the program is called Less than Full Balance. Because agreements are already reached with partner creditors, there is no negotiating. Since it’s a new program, many banks and other creditors are not part of it yet, and there are strict qualifying rules.
- Bankruptcy: Bankruptcy is the option for those with no other way to get debt relief. With Chapter 7 bankruptcy, non-exempt assets (those not necessary for you to live, like your house, car, work tools, etc.) are sold by a court-appointed trustee. Proceeds pay off unsecured debt. Those with an income that can support it, may file Chapter 13, in which the court devises a 3–5-year payment plan. You keep your assets but must stick to the plan. Both types of bankruptcy come with a huge credit score hit. They stay on a credit report for 7-10 years, making it very difficult to get an auto loan, mortgage, other credit, or even secure an apartment or get insurance.
Get Started Paying Your Debts and Repairing Your Credit
Dealing with debt can be overwhelming, particularly if you don’t think you can afford to pay it back. How to find out what debt collectors you owe money to, or just finding out what debt you owe in general, can add to the stress.
A counselor from InCharge Debt Solutions can help you find out what debt you owe, and work with you to figure out the best debt relief option. Nonprofit credit counselors are required by law to work in your best interest. On top of that, you won’t be bringing them anything they haven’t seen before. They’re in the business of helping people find debt relief, not judging. A free session with a credit counselor can show you there’s a path to pay off your debt, and immediately help ease the anxiety of being buried in bills you can’t pay.
Creating a budget, managing your money, and finding a workable solution, like a debt management plan, can improve your credit score and, ultimately, give you a solid financial foundation for the future.
About The Author
Maureen Milliken writes about personal finance and debt relief topics for InCharge Debt Solutions. She started as the “Business Beat” columnist for the now-defunct Haverhill (Mass.) Gazette and has been writing about finance, real estate and business for more than 30 years. She also is is the author of three mystery novels and two nonfiction books.
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