Debts from student loans, credit cards, healthcare, mortgages, auto loans and other daily bills of life can add up. Sometimes a debt collector may be called to ask you for the money owed.
Negotiating a settlement with a collection agency can help you solve that problem if your debts are too high and you can’t afford them.
The good news is that the average amount owed among accounts in collections — $1,000 — is low enough that most people should be able to resolve it if a collection agency starts demanding payment. Here are some ways to do that and negotiate a settlement with a debt collector.
Know your debt
The first step is to ensure that the debt is yours. Federal laws require a debt collector who contacts you about a debt to give you certain information in writing within five days. This includes the name of the creditor, amount owed and the fact that you can dispute the debt. You can also request the name and address of the original creditor if it’s different from the current creditor.
If you’re unsure who you owe the money to, or how much, you can dispute the debt or ask for more information from the debt collector.
If you dispute all or part of a debt with a debt collector in writing within 30 days of receiving the notice, the debt collector isn’t allowed to contact you again until it sends you written verification of the debt.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has sample letters to send to a debt collector on issues such as not owing the debt, needing more information about it, asking that a debt collector only contact you through your lawyer, and specifying how they are to contact you.
Know the statute of limitations
You should also know the statute of limitations on the debt before making a payment. This is the period when you can be sued for a debt, and most fall between three and six years. These laws are set by states, and you may want to talk to a lawyer about how they affect your debt.
In some states, a partial payment can restart the statute of limitations on a debt and can extend how long the negative information remains on your credit report.
If the statute of limitations is about to expire, a collection agency may be more willing to negotiate with you and give you favorable terms. If they’ve expired, an attorney could help you stop the debt collector from obtaining a judgment against you.
Plan a repayment proposal
What a collection agency wants is pretty simple: your money. They only make money when you pay the debt. They can’t seize property or pull money from your bank account unless they sue and get a court judgment and permission to garnish wages.
The agency should be willing to work with you if you’re reasonable. Coming up with a realistic repayment proposal is a good start to repaying your debt, and can be a way to negotiate with them in good faith.
Be realistic about how much you can afford to pay each month. Review your other bills and make sure that tackling this debt each money won’t lead to more problems.
Write down your monthly take-home pay and all of your monthly expenses, including debt repayments. Try to have money left over for emergencies and unexpected expenses.
From that you should be able to decide on a total amount you’re willing to pay to settle the entire debt as a lump sum or monthly payments for a certain amount of time. It shouldn’t be more than you can afford, and it can be less than the total amount owed.
Now it’s time to negotiate
Once you’ve decided that the debt is yours and that you’re still legally required to pay it — and you have a budget in mind to repay it — it’s time to negotiate with the collection agency.
Explain your financial situation, how close the debt is to the statute of limitations, and detail how much you can afford to pay each month. The older the debt, the more likely you can convince the collection agency to accept less than full payment.
Remember that you’re no longer dealing with the original creditor, so the collection agency should have some wriggle room to negotiate a final amount to be paid. If you need help, seek a credit counselor or attorney.
Don’t discuss your income or other financial obligations unless you’re sure it will help in your negotiations. You may have to speak to several people at the collection agency to get what you want. Stand your ground and don’t let them bully you.
Once you agree to a repayment or settlement plan, record it in writing. Include the debt collector’s promises, such as that they’ll stop collection efforts ad will forgive the debt once you’ve completed the payments. Get the agreement in writing before you make a payment.
Lastly, be wary of debt settlement companies that charge in advance to settle your debts for you. Some promise more than they can deliver, and some creditors won’t work with them. The debt settlement company may not be able to resolve it for you, and you’re better off on your own.