By Gerri Detweiler, Credit.com
It's happened to me more than once. Someone finds out what I do and pulls me aside to ask a question about a financial or credit problem they're having. They're usually embarrassed and sometimes worry about being judged. I can't blame them. Money troubles can be hard to discuss.
The secret many don't seem to know is they are not as alone as they feel. Plenty of people have money problems from time to time (heaven knows I've made plenty of mistakes), and people who work with debt and credit have heard it all -- really.
That said, there are some common themes and questions that start with "I really hate having to ask this, but..." Here are some questions people ask me -- and the ones I ask them in response.
1. I have more credit card debt than I can possibly repay. What do I do?
My question: What have you tried? If you haven't yet negotiated a repayment plan or reached out for help, then try to taking an honest look at whether the big bill is manageable. It may be difficult, but if there's a realistic chance of being able to do so, you may want to use free online tools (like this credit card payoff calculator) to come up with a payment plan and a budget that allows you to pay back your debt in a reasonable period of time.
If the debt is so overwhelming you can't imagine how you will ever gain traction or get it paid off, you may want to talk to a reputable credit counseling agency or a bankruptcy attorney about what your next move should be. Just asking about it is a good first step, because you can then begin to feel you have some choices and control about what to do.
2. My credit was destroyed by the recession, but I'm back to work now, and I want to buy a house. How can I raise my credit score fast?
My question: Do you know what factors are bringing your score down? Just knowing what the current number is -- and what it needs to be to qualify for a loan -- doesn't tell you how to get there. It's important to know why your scores are what they are. It could be because of late payments or too much debt, but you won't know how to address the problem until you pinpoint it. (One way to do this is to get a free credit report summary from Credit.com, which comes with an action plan for improving your credit.) It's also important to check your free annual credit reports. Errors there could be depressing your score. So check those and dispute any inaccurate information.
Unfortunately, this question is often asked when someone is already shopping for a home, and improving credit usually takes time. Sometimes the better course is to wait to buy a home. If someone is determined to buy right away, they may have to look for a loan with more lenient qualification standards, like an FHA loan. Or they may have to settle for a less-than-ideal loan.
So if you are thinking you might want to buy in the next year, now is the time to check on your credit and start getting it ready for a lender to look at.
3. My credit score is now trashed, and it's not even my fault! How can I get a decent score again? Can credit repair help?
In many cases, people feel frustrated because someone they loved and trusted let them down and ruined their credit in the process (think co-signing or divorce). And now, many of the privileges they had taken for granted are gone. They may have debt collectors calling them. But any time I am asked about rebuilding credit, I ask if they have checked their credit reports.
In the case of divorce, you'll want to be sure that joint accounts have been closed. Also check to be sure that all information is accurate. It can be a tedious process, but disputing incorrect or outdated information can help. Learn about how long various types of negative information can remain on your credit report. If it stays longer than it's supposed to or comes back, dispute that. Make sure you're adding positive information by using credit, paying on time and keeping your balances low.
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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.