Being in debt is often considered a way of life in the U.S. Student loans, mortgages, credit cards and medical bills are the norm and they burden people of all ages and all walks of life. Financial hardship can be a slow, drawn-out process where debt builds up over time or it can be thrust upon people without notice.
The average American has over $6,000 of credit card debt, which isn’t a problem for some, but what happens when that debt becomes too much? What are the options when the money coming in doesn’t cover the money going out and minimum payments become a struggle?
This list of resources for financial hardship covers basic budgeting from everyday expenses to the more serious issues surrounding bankruptcy and loan refinancing.
Budgeting apps and services
Whether hardship is on the horizon or if a person suddenly finds themselves in a tight spot, knowing the options and resources available is crucial. The first step to avoiding or alleviating financial hardship is learning how to budget. Seeing where money is going is often a surprising exercise for people, with small, everyday buys building up to become big expenses at the end of the month.
Take a medium Latte from Starbucks which costs on average $4. One coffee a day at five days a week works out to $80 dollars a month. This alone may not seem like a huge amount but small costs do add up.
Keeping track of spending is key to getting a hold on these costs. Luckily, there are apps that make this process easier.
Pocketguard - This app makes it possible to link checking and savings accounts, credit cards, investments, and loans. This is especially useful once users input bills as Pocketguard figures out how much disposable income there is to play with. It does this by calculating income and expenses across the whole month so even if a bill isn’t due yet, it will give a clear picture of what can and can’t be spent. It also looks at what services people are paying for and suggests switching companies or plans based on their needs and spending.
Home Budget - This app is particularly useful for managing family finances. It has a lot of the features of Pocketguard, but allows multiple users with varied budgets. This can be a great asset for single income families so they can see exactly how much each person can afford to spend and what they should be saving.
Another feature this app offers is their debt strategy management. This looks at all debts and figures out the best repayment plan for each loan. Depending on interest rates, it may make sense to pay off one loan before the other. For example, an unpaid credit card bill may come with significantly higher penalties than a late phone and utilities bill.
Home Budget also categorizes all spending into various categories automatically. Food, gas, bills, and entertainment are all recognized and organized into easy-to-read pie charts so it’s easy to see exactly where money is going.
Dollarbird - For those where timing is key in managing debt, Dollarbird is based around a calendar. It allows people to organize debts by the date they are due. It also shows days when income is expected, which can be particularly useful for those who are sending out multiple invoices. The free version allows one calendar for one user, but an upgrade to pro is $40 per year. This allows for three users and up to 20 separate calendars, which is great for freelancers and small businesses to keep their personal finances separate.
Clarity Money - This app makes use of computer AI to analyze all subscriptions and look for services that would save a person money. It looks at your interests and shows products that users may be interested in that would also save money. They use simple graphs to show income and expenditure and it also guides people through applying for the credit card that suits their spending best.
Digit - Digit is an app for those who really aren’t sure how much they can save each month, but know they want to start saving. Digit looks at current spending and analyses how much people can send to a separate Digit savings account. Users can set savings goals, but Digit won’t send your bank account into overdraft by only taking out what can be afforded. It’s free for the first 30 days and then after that it’s only $2.99 per month. They also have a 1% bonus if users save for three consecutive months.
Tax return resources and services
Tax returns can be a minefield and all too often people will file their taxes late or incorrectly resulting in fines. Filing taxes can be daunting, especially if money is already tight. However, it’s worth remembering that it’s better to be late paying a tax bill than to be late filing taxes. If taxes aren’t filed on time, interest is charged at 5% per month on what is owed. However if the taxes are filed without payment, the interest is only 0.5%.
So if a person owes $1,000, after five months they could either owe $1,250 by filing late or $1,025 by paying late. Needless to say, it’s worth getting taxes in on time, and there are ways to help get everything in order.
IRS Website - As obvious as this one is, the IRS Website is a good place to start (assuming the site is up and running properly). Surprisingly easy to navigate with articles explaining the process very clearly, it not only has all the forms you need but also explanations on why and how to file them correctly. Browsing through the articles will help anyone who is nervous about filing taxes.
H&R Block Tax Calculator - The most difficult part of the return is figuring out how much is actually owed. H&R Block has a whole host of free tools to use related to paying taxes, and they can be used along with the IRS website. There is also the option to have the company file taxes for a fee, but with all the information available for free, it’s easier than ever for an individual to submit their own returns.
Turbotax - These guys have been around for years and for good reason. The user-interface of Turbotax couldn’t be easier, it uses question-and-answer based survey rather than confusing form filing. If people are submitting multiple W-2 wage statements their app has the ability to take a photo of the document and automatically fill in the information.
This functionality does come at a price with varied packages offering different levels of filing. They do have a free basic package but it only allows the filing of 1040EZ or 1040A forms. These forms can only used if earning less than $100,000 and the user doesn’t need to itemize any deductions.
Their most expensive package isn’t bad and comes in at $179 for Turbotax Live. This will include any form that the IRS can request, a one on one review of returns and live tax advice from on-screen CPAs or EAs.
According to a study by Comet 80% of Americans are living in debt. Much of this debt is considered a “good debt”, meaning an investment, usually in the form of mortgages for a house.
The next highest areas of debt are student loans and medical bills followed by credit card and personal loans. The problem occurs when people consistently fall behind on multiple loans and bills. If people are struggling to even make minimum payments for consecutive months then filing for bankruptcy might be the best option.
There are different procedures for personal vs business bankruptcy as well as different consequences for the sale of assets. There are a host of online tools and information available to guide people through this process and help them figure out what kind of bankruptcy filing they are going to make.
Glossary of Bankruptcy Terms - Declaring bankruptcy can be stressful enough without the extra issues of not understanding the terms used during the process. This glossary is from the U.S. Courts site and contains simple explanations of the most common terms. Knowing and understanding these terms will help expedite the process and this is a useful tool to keep bookmarked throughout the filing.
Debt.org - This organization helps people understand their debt via a huge amount of information about the specifics of the bankruptcy process, from the initial application to restructuring debts. It’s simple to use and their tools can be tailored to specific situations. The site asks a few questions about the amount of money owed along with the type of debt and comes up with options from refinancing to which forms to fill out.
Legal Match - The thought of hiring someone while broke may seem like a bizarre idea, but a specialist financial lawyer can help people hold on to their assets. For most people this means that they may be able to hold on to their home, and with the right representation loans can be written off and allow people to start fresh. Legal Match asks people for information on their debts, and helps find a lawyer in their area. There is no charge to present a case to Legal Match so it’s worth it to see if it can help.
Business bankruptcy resources and services
Declaring bankruptcy as a business has different consequences for the individual declaring it. An individual may be able to protect their personal assets unless they were used as collateral for business loans. In this case, the assets may be seized and used to repay debtors. For small business owners, personal and business finance may be combined in one bank account, so it’s important to know the different processes and how to proceed.
There are two ways of declaring bankruptcy as a business. The first is to file under Chapter 7 bankruptcy where the business is liquidated and all non-exempt assets are used to pay debtors. Chapter 11 bankruptcy allows for a restructuring and repayment plan to be put in place. This allows a business to stay operational and gives the opportunity for a business to recover.
Understanding these differences and how to approach each of these is difficult, but the following resources will make the process much easier.
Nolo.com - Nolo is an amazing resource for information on what to expect from the bankruptcy process. They aim to guide those who plan to undertake the process of declaring bankruptcy themselves. They have enough free information on their site to give people an understanding of what lies ahead of them. However, they also sell e-books that give an outline of processes and expected outcomes of bankruptcy cases.
If the DIY approach seems overly daunting, they also have a lawyer finding tool. They can put you in contact with a local lawyer who specializes in fiscal law and can make the process even smoother.
Recovering your credit score - A bankruptcy will stay on a person’s credit report for 10 years and obviously damages a credit score. However there are things that can be done to mitigate this. Hiring a credit counseling agency can help people get back to decent credit and allow them to look for credit once more. Making sure that the agency is legitimate is key here and the Department of Justice has a list of approved agencies by state.
TotalBankruptcy.com - Total Bankruptcy are a site that can put business owners in contact with financial lawyers nationwide. The advantages of having a lawyer who knows how to navigate the financial world can be invaluable and lead to a quicker recovery. As well as their law services their site also has advice on how to rebuild after going through a bankruptcy. Following their advice can help rebuild a credit score and also help to restructure any new venture to be more fiscally responsible than the last venture.
Loan consolidating resources
People will often have several different types of loans, and the constant pressure of repayments can be overwhelming. Consolidating a loan simply means combining all existing loans into one payment. Not only does this make it more manageable in terms of one payment instead of several payments, but also has other advantages.
If a person has a lot of credit card debt they most likely have quite high interest repayments. If they aren’t even making the minimum payments on those debts the penalties can be severe. By consolidating it gives people an opportunity to have a repayment plan that they know they can pay off.
USA.gov - When looking for financial advice it’s important to understand where the information is coming from. The USA.gov site has impartial advice to help people in debt know where to turn to. The site suggests where to get free counselling, how to check if organizations or companies are legitimate, and offers advice and information that is trustworthy.
The Financial Counseling Association of America - This is one of the many resources recommended by the USA.gov site. The FCAA can help people find a counsellor who can begin the process of consolidating loans. They also have a range of services that includes viewing and evaluating a credit score, repayment structures, and also a very informative blog. Going through a councillor can be beneficial to make sure that the interest rates charged on the new consolidated loan will actually be beneficial.
Lendkey - Lendkey are a company that consolidates loans through non-profit Credit Unions and banks rather than large banks and lending institutions. The biggest advantage of this is that interest rates in non-profit organizations are generally a lot lower than in for-profit banks. Lendkey searches a vast network of these non-profits and finds the best deal for consolidating loans.
Federal Student Aid - Students loans are one of the biggest debts in the U.S. and the Federal Student Aid has information on how to consolidate loans without the help of an extra agency. This is for people who have multiple federal education loans but want to make them a single payment. This site walks though the process of applying for a consolidation by themselves along with some pros and cons of it.
Loan types to avoid
Unfortunately, when people are in financial difficulty there those who try to take advantage. This practice has been around for a long time, and targets those who believe that they have very few options left.
As a general rule, if it sounds too good to be true, it is. Companies that offer loans without any collateral or don’t require a credit check can be incredibly dangerous to deal with. Companies that offer small personal loans or “payday loans” have high interest rates or fees. These fees are usually between $15 and $30 per $100 borrowed, and if you can’t afford to pay off the loan when the date comes around, those fees will double.
Before considering these quick-fix options, people dealing with financial difficulties should look at all the options.
Credit Karma - This site is mainly for people to check their credit score, but they also have a function to see ratings of companies that are offering loans. Companies offering short term loans often try to warn against these types of loans while also offering them, but claiming that they are different. It’s important to reiterate that if it seems too good to be true, it is. Check the company of Credit Karma and see what others are saying about them. While on the Credit Karma site, users can look at their list of loan providers that they can apply for safely.
Find Legal help - This site is run by the American Bar Association to help people access legal aid. This can be especially useful for anyone who has already borrowed money from a payday loan or short-term personal finance company. These types of companies are illegal in many states and people borrowing from them should know their rights. Find Legal Help can give advice on how to proceed and even help find a lawyer to represent them if needs be.
Bankrate - Similar to Credit Karma in that they will help find the best rates for loans, credit cards and investments. However they also have a lot of useful information on spotting scams. Using their guide to figuring out if a loan is a scam or not, users will be able to protect themselves from getting involved with unsavory schemes.
Moving out of debt
The main takeaway from this list of resources is that there are options for anyone going through financial hardship. Debt is a part of life and the worst thing that anyone in a tight situation can do is to pretend that the problem doesn’t exist. The sooner that a person can get a hold of their expenses and income and figure out a viable plan for their future, the better. Understanding what services and options are available to people going through a tough financial time can go a long way to returning to a less stressful life.