Help me find good options to help my sister get out of debt
February 19, 2008 1:02 PM   Subscribe

My sister and her husband are in serious debt. My wife and I are going to act as their financial advisors to help them get it together. Can anyone recommend any programs/products we can look into?

My wife is a financial genius and helped me get out of severe debt when we met. We need to do the same for my sister, KC. KC and her husband are totally on board and have seen the light once my wife laid all their bills out on paper for them. They are prepared to change their spending habits and work hard to get turned around. However, there are some challenges.

The tally was basically this:
- they make about $150K
- they put a lot into their corporate retirement plans pre-tax
- they have 3 car loans and a 5th wheel trailer loan that total $1800/month
- they have store and major credit cards totaling about $68K

They have about 50K put away that is liquid, of which 20K is available to use for paying off debt. The rest is untouchable for their own reasons. Unfortunately.

So the 20K will be used right away to pay off all the store cards and some of the major cards. I think the best course of action for the rest of the majors is two 25K debt consolidation loans. They already have a 2nd on their house that has basically been used monthly to cover about a $1500 monthly gap between their income and bills.

I know the best course it to liquidate the other $30K and not get one of the loans, but that money is off limits, this is their choice and its final.

So I am looking for other options, or, if you have a good source for these loans, point me to it. Their local CU can give them $25K over 4 years at 13.49%. Not bad - what else is out there?

They have good credit (~680), never missed a payment, but they just have a ton of debt. I'm looking for options here that may be better than what is above.

The catalyst for this was that KC said she was going to cash in $40K of her retirement, which would be a $27K net after penalties and taxes- but obviously that is a horrible cost and way worse than even the 20%+ rates they are paying on this debt. When I heard of this I decided it was time for help. Needless to say she has no clue where to start and was relieved that I offered.

The scenario is that they aren't selling any cars, the trailer, or touching the account with $30K in it. We have to work with this situation. I would do things differently, but since this is what we have to work with, I am looking for options given these challenges.
posted by Chuck Cheeze to Work & Money (39 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
If they aren't willing to make the changes that your wife knows are what needs to be done (sell vehicles, liquidate the 30k, etc.) then you and your wife should not get involved. If you're not all on the same page at the beginning of this big, emotional project then it will turn out bad for everyone involved. Don't risk ruining your relationship over it. They are adults, and they should be responsible for solving their own problems.
posted by mccxxiii at 1:23 PM on February 19, 2008 [7 favorites]

Buy them Dave Ramsey's book and hope they take the advice. He does a pretty good job of compelling people to stop making everyone else rich.
posted by cdmwebs at 1:27 PM on February 19, 2008

I assume the debt consolidation loans have a lower interest rate and that your sis and her husband will actually be able to make the payments? If that's the case, I guess you can go that route, but I always prefer the good ol' debt snowball method.

This would go along way to solving the symptoms and effects of their debt, but if you don't help your sis find ways to live in a more frugal manner, she and her husband run the risk of falling back into debt. Take a holistic approach, help them pay off the debt, sure, but you should also take a look at their monthly expenses (have them track their expenses for a month or two, every receipt). My bet is they're eating out a lot, have DVDs or books or CDs that have never been opened on the shelves, etc.

If you don't help her and her husband spend less per month, since obviously their lifestyle is financed by debt, this will merely be a Sisyphean exercise.
posted by po822000 at 1:28 PM on February 19, 2008

Frankly I don't get any sense that they're serious about getting themselves out of the hole and staying out; it just sounds like they're trying to containerize the debt. I think about the only effective thing you can do is do the math and calculate a graph showing how their net worth changes with respect to time with several different scenarios that you propose, along with one case depicting their own scenario (like Case A - sell all cars except one, Case B - debt consolidation loan only, Case C - ignore the problem, Case D - etc etc) and let them make the decision. If they don't like the predicted outcome of a case they're considering, you all will be able to explain why. It will give them a set of illustrative facts to consider while keeping you and your wife from getting too involved in case things go sour.
posted by crapmatic at 1:30 PM on February 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I agree with mcxxiii. They don't seem serious about getting out of debt, and getting intimately involved in family member's finances is never a good idea. Is there some reason they don't want to seek professional advice?
posted by hilby at 1:37 PM on February 19, 2008

Do they need all three vehicles and the the trailer? If not, I'd suspect they don't want to change their spending ways. The fact that there's anything off the table at this point demonstrates their lack of commitment to change, and change they must. Otherwise they appear to be on a course of constant spend and borrow, borrow and spend.

I'm with everybody else on this one. You don't have to work with this situation, nor should you.
posted by SteveInMaine at 1:40 PM on February 19, 2008

Get Dave Ramsey's book, and if possible, have them attend a Financial Peace University course near them.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 1:49 PM on February 19, 2008

The fact that there's anything off the table at this point demonstrates their lack of commitment to change

My guess is that the 30K is there to meet some personal need the poster isn't talking about, like to cover school tuition for a child, or a medical or other safety net. Frankly, I can't fault anyone - even someone who is deeply in debt - from having some liquid savings available as a safety net.
posted by anastasiav at 1:50 PM on February 19, 2008

What is their rationale for keeping the $30K locked up? There aren't many investments that will give better returns the lowest debt interest.
posted by qvtqht at 1:54 PM on February 19, 2008

Otherwise they appear to be on a course of constant spend and borrow, borrow and spend.

In constant borrow through their days.

If they don't get that they should use the other $30,000 to help pay down their debt, "borrowing" it from themselves (which will surely cost them less than borrowing it for real from others) and replacing it later, you may have to lay out for them that they will decrease their spending, or they will be forced to decrease their spending, and it won't be by you, it will be by their creditors, who will be substantially less pleasant to deal with.
posted by oaf at 1:59 PM on February 19, 2008

I agree with others that have said they're not serious about this. They just want the problem to go away without making any sacrifices. If they have $50k liquid assets - why the hell do they still have $68k credit card debt?
Why do 2 people need 3 cars and a trailer!?

Have you compared the interest earned on the untouchable $30k vs the interest they're paying on their credit cards - have you showed them how much its costing them to keep that money 'untouchable' rather than pay off the debt.

Essentially your 'plan' so far is to reduce a $68k debt to $50k, its barely a dent in their total debt, whereas it appears they have the assets to wipe that out entirely. Sure a consolidation loan will ease the monthly expenses but you say they've never missed a payment, so clearly they are managing with the debt they have. Their best option would be to pay off the debts starting with the highest interest using the $50k, sell at least 1 car and the trailer.

Frankly, I can't fault anyone - even someone who is deeply in debt - from having some liquid savings available as a safety net.

So you think its better to be in massive debt now to save you from 'potential' debt in the future?
If you have $10k on a credit card and $10k in the bank, you're losing money. If you pay off the $10k on the credit card, you still have the balance available for emergencies but its not costing you interest to keep $10k liquid in the bank. If they pay off those credit cards 'normally' eg. without declaring bankruptcy or any other method that would severely shaft their credit rating, they will likely still have most if not all of that $68k available balance for emergencies but they wont be paying massive amounts of interest on it.
posted by missmagenta at 2:02 PM on February 19, 2008

There is a tv show I've seen hosted by this woman with a British accent, who takes over couples' finances to get them out of debt. The figures she presents them are shocking, what with interest and compounded interests adding up to 750k in debt in 5 years if they continue on their path of freewheeling spending.

Credit cards are cut up and they are given jars and cash to deal. These folks aren't making 150k... I can't remember her name nor the name of the show, sorry.

I also get the impression your kin aren't all that serious if there are many debts/assets which are off the table.

But here's a W network site with some financial tools and calculators where you can input their numbers and present the cold hard facts of life to them. Then walk away from the shit storm if you want to be invited to any more Sunday dinners.

I'd say they need to pay off their credit card debt with some assets. Like at least 1 car and the 5 wheeler. The amount saved in interest costs, they could purchase once they have saved up for one in the future. ITMT, no trips in that 5 wheeler either. It's austerity time if they really want out of debt. I don't understand why the 50K in cash isn't used against the 68K credit card debt. Their 50K is a false image of any 'savings' if there's an outstanding 68K compound interest debt still on the table staring you in the face.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make them drink.
posted by alicesshoe at 2:18 PM on February 19, 2008

First of all, we need more info. What's the total debt? What do the CC payments come to? Do they own a home, and if so what's that situation? Kids?


If the remaining 30k can be used as an emergency fund, I would use that to pay off a big chunk of debt. I prefer the debt snowball method because if they can completely clear out a bill or two with that 20k, their payments will get much cheaper. If not, save 5-10 of the 20k as an emergency fund.

If I'm reading this correctly, they are spending $1500 per month more than they take home. This has to stop, and they need to seriously restrict themselves as much as possible to create more cashflow. That means selling anything that isn't nailed down. No more eating out. No vacations. It means they either have to pay off a car or sell one with that 20k in cash to free up some cash. I also suggest that they stop or greatly reduce retirement spending because they can't afford to contribute and live their current lifestyle. Paying today's bills is more important in their situation.

I wouldn't use a debt consolidation loan unless they close the cards as soon as the balances are transferred. And I don't care what closing cards does to their credit score. They've pretty much proven that they're not responsible enough to borrow money anyways.

Given the math here, I gather they have a HUGE mortgage/rent payment on top of all the other debt. I could be wrong, but it seems to me like they need to seriously sell some cars/trailers/house to give them some breathing room.

They have a good income and can definitely make some damage, but they are in way over their heads. Call me crazy but they're not going to be willing to make the DRASTIC lifestyle changes they need to make in order to get themselves out of this hole. If they were, selling the cars and trailer wouldn't be off-limits. Let them REALLY hit rock bottom and then they'll be willing to change.
posted by PFL at 2:20 PM on February 19, 2008

Side note from a satisfied customer: American Express offers 4.99% on all transfers for the life of the balance when you get a Blue card. That really helped us get back on track and out of debt (although admittedly we were nowhere near a mountain such as 68K). I would have them roll as much CC debt as possible into one of these cards and have them cut up all their plastic immediately. That's advice they should be able to take regardless of what existing luxuries they are or are not willing to part with.
posted by fusinski at 2:20 PM on February 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Sorry.. if the 30k can be used as an emergency fund, use the $20k to pay debt...
posted by PFL at 2:21 PM on February 19, 2008

So you think its better to be in massive debt now to save you from 'potential' debt in the future?

I'm guessing that the interest rates that KC and her husband are dealing with aren't nearly as favorable to them as mine are to me (and mine have become less favorable recently, thanks to Ben Bernanke), but I find that it provides me peace of mind to have cash on hand rather than throwing every extra penny at my student loans—if I had to re-borrow the cash, it would be at a much higher rate than the student loans are now. Yes, I'm losing money, but I'm also avoiding having to take out a high-interest loan or carry a balance on my credit cards should a minor emergency crop up.

Let's say I have a 7% student loan of $10,000 and a bank balance of $10,000, earning 3.5%. I'm essentially paying 3.5% interest to keep that cash on hand. If I pay off the loan, where could I borrow that same $10,000 for 3.5% or less? Nowhere.

I'll grant that this probably does not apply to someone(s) whose debit is almost entirely credit cards, which can have some of the most mind-boggling interest rates this side of payday lenders.

posted by oaf at 2:28 PM on February 19, 2008

Not debit, debt.
posted by oaf at 2:30 PM on February 19, 2008

It's been mentioned upthread but I just want to reiterate, be very careful in getting involved in this sort of situation.

Metafilter's own jdroth's Get Rich Slowly should become required reading in your sister's family.
posted by drezdn at 2:47 PM on February 19, 2008

This is NOT a commentary on your good intentions, or your ability to do the math for these folks. You are essentially acting as a fiduciary in this situation, which means that ethically once you accept the job you have to act in their best interests. Unfortunately, the kinds of things you may have to tell them are the kinds of things that can strain relationships. Money is a highly personal thing. Often times its hard to act in someones best interest when you are worried about what the ramifications may be.

Speaking as someone who does this kind of thing professionally, you are not 'qualified' to help these people out. This kind of spending, the lifestyle decisions they've made, its a sickness. To get better, these two are going to need to make significant and drastic changes. If you're holding back key information because you don't want to jeopardize your personal relationship(s) with them, then you are the wrong guy for this job.
posted by uaudio at 2:49 PM on February 19, 2008

oaf: Your logic is sound - you are paying someone 3.5% for the peace of mind of having $10,000 on-hand in case you need it.

I would question whether you need it - though.. you could be saving money and increasing value instead.
posted by TravellingDen at 2:55 PM on February 19, 2008

To echo what others have said, is it really worth the time and effort of you and your wife if there isn't a good indication this won't just happen again? We all want to help out our family members, but unless your sister and her husband are willing to significantly change their lifestyle, they're very likely to spend themselves right back into the debt.

You didn't mention any children, so it's not as if there are kids suffering and watching their parents fight about money. You can point them in the direction of some professional financial advisors. But beyond that, unless they're willing to make the kind of changes necessary to permanently resolve their spending problems, I'd think very carefully about whether or not this is an ordeal you want to undertake. In 5 years, all that could be left to show for your hard efforts is $100,000 of debt and a guilty conscience for not being able to fix their lifestyle problems.

There is a tv show I've seen hosted by this woman with a British accent, who takes over couples' finances to get them out of debt. The figures she presents them are shocking, what with interest and compounded interests adding up to 750k in debt in 5 years if they continue on their path of freewheeling spending.

Credit cards are cut up and they are given jars and cash to deal. These folks aren't making 150k... I can't remember her name nor the name of the show, sorry.

'Til Debt to Us Part hosted by Gail Vaz-Oxlade.
posted by Nelsormensch at 3:03 PM on February 19, 2008

Response by poster: OK - none of you are really providing the help I am asking for. You are all forming opinions about the situation that I didn't ask for.

Does anyone have any pointers to institutions or programs that I may be able to use as a resource for a potential loan or unique offering that could help the situation? I.E. "My bank has a great interest rate on a signature loan right now" or something along those lines.

Some facts of the situation that may answer some questions:

- We are getting involved on an advisory level. We aren't telling them what to buy and not buy, how much to spend, or balancing their accounts.
- KC is in over her head and doesn't know what to do at the expense of sacrificing her retirement (one thing they HAVE done right)
- We have a very good relationship that will not be strained by this. We are providing direction and helping them make decisions. The final moves are up to them. We are also helping them learn some common sense do's and dont's when the situation is bad.
- Their house was bought for $295K in 2001 and they now owe about $500K on it due to refinancing, paying off bills, charging them up again, repeat. PITI is about $3500/mo.
- The 5th wheel trailer is how they vacation - they go camping. They need the truck to pull the trailer. This won't be changing. They use it often and well.
- Car #2 is a midsize SUV that is the everyday car alternative to the truck. Good for errands, kids, etc.
- Car #3 is a Mustang convertible. It's the husband's baby and he won't sell it.
- Car payments are high because they always just put a little down on the cars. Why? because they haven't made good financial decisions, thus the situation we are in.
- The bulk of the spending throughout the years is KC's fault. When they have thought about buying something, the answer for her has always been "we can afford it", even if they couldn't. There could be some latent "buying makes us happy because we are unhappy" stuff going on here, but we aren't getting into the why's or looking for blame. We are here to find the best course of action out of debt for them.
- Because of the above, her husband's stance on this whole thing is "you did this, you have to get us out of it". He is a very hard-ass dude, so this was expected, but truthfully he has been very on board with what we are advising, but he won't sell his baby (Mustang), and he won't touch the $30K mainly because its their cushion, and secondarily because it was recently inherited from his mom's death- so there is some sentimental meaning there, take that fwiw.
- They, especially KC, are VERY on board with curtailing their spending, and very serious about this problem. If they weren't serious, we would not have gotten involved.
- They are paying $1500 more out in bills (without everyday cash spending) than they are bringing in. She has been writing checks against the 2nd mortgage monthly to cover the difference without revealing it to anyone, so their second is up to 70K and its limit is $77K. If this went on another 6 months they would max that out and it would be much worse.

Hopefully that helps. Can anyone point me to any useful resources? Nobody is reading books here. We have a plan...I am looking for alternatives that may be better than what we are currently proposing. Want to help us get creative? Please respond. Want to question anyone's intentions? Go read another thread.
posted by Chuck Cheeze at 3:50 PM on February 19, 2008

How about Oprah's Debt Diet? Select "Follow the step-by-step plan now!" and find some tools that might help. Step 8 is a quiz to show people why they spend. Also the family stories might be helpful to show they're not alone and that other people have done it successfully.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 4:55 PM on February 19, 2008

Best answer: They are paying $1500 more out in bills (without everyday cash spending) than they are bringing in.

That means they are spending $18,000 more per year than they earn, just on bills. I very much doubt that any lender will give you a good interest rate under this scenario, not even a non-profit. They typically won't help you until you make enough changes that you are not continuing to accure debt. The first step is to stop the bleeding, then you can look at fixing the wounds.

They will advise though, around here the credit unions have some sort of debt counseling service that they refer people to, much advertised since the housing crash. Perhaps your local credit union could refer you to a knowledgable service?
posted by fshgrl at 5:11 PM on February 19, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks fshgrl, great advice.
posted by Chuck Cheeze at 5:21 PM on February 19, 2008

First, they do not have good credit. Their credit is below the average of approximately 720.

Second, they spend more than they have. They are unwilling to change that behavior. It's that simple.

A good loan rate isn't the answer here. I respect that you want to help them, but they need to make some cuts in their spending.
posted by 26.2 at 5:28 PM on February 19, 2008

I went and saw CCCS when I got into a bind with my credit. The do debt management too.
posted by terrapin at 5:50 PM on February 19, 2008

Another vote for Dave Ramsey. If they can't make it to a Financial Peace University, it's on cd as well. I borrowed the cds from a coworker and I've learned so much.
posted by mabelcolby at 6:26 PM on February 19, 2008

I must say I find the husband's attitude hard to swallow. That much in debt means that it couldn't all have been her, and it's certainly by law his debt too. That being said, would he be conducive to using the 30 grand from his mum to pay off his mustang? I.e. use the money that is sentimentally important to him to enable him to keep something of his?
posted by kjs4 at 6:31 PM on February 19, 2008

Hmm. Well, sorry for the free misdirection, boss.

Your follow up only drives home the point everyone is trying to make further. As long as they can't give up their precious vacations, Mustangs and SUVs, they can't be helped. It's an exercise in futility. It's pretty damn simple - To get out of debt, stop spending money on stupid stuff and pay down the debt. Otherwise, keep piling $18k a year on to the mess.

You asked for an "institution or program" but you don't want to read any books? Maybe you should try Staples. They have Easy Buttons in stock. There is no silver bullet for this. They went into it slowly and the only way out is probably even slower until they get motivated to get out. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but there is no "special program."

Before you yell at us again, (if you can't read the book,) listen to one one hour podcast from Dave's show. They're at iTunes. I guarantee you'll hear someone tell the exact same story that you're outlining here and you'll year a plan that's worked for thousands of others.
posted by cdmwebs at 6:36 PM on February 19, 2008 [4 favorites]

Get 0% introductory rate credit cards and transfer portions of the balances there. Watch out for when they adjust and what they adjust to -- you don't want $48K to suddenly go from 0% interest to 14% interest if they somehow magically have long-term 9% interest rates on their cards now. Also watch out for what the minimum monthly payments will add up to if they have more credit cards. For whatever you can't transfer, or for whatever will put those minimum monthly payments above what they can afford, the idea of a debt consolidation loan is good. 14% sounds high to me, but I really don't know.

Also, you might have them read personal finance blogs every day (I put a list of them in a past comment) which really helped me. Those blogs have lots of practical advice and -- even better -- are very inspiring. Reading those every day is like having all your friends become super financially responsible, and over time, the peer pressure gets to you.

Reading the book The Soul of Money is also something I'd recommend for anyone that is making a lot of money but continues to spend beyond their means. One thing it does is address the sense of scarcity and need-to-buy in a context when people are probably beyond true need.
posted by salvia at 6:47 PM on February 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

"We are here to find the best course of action out of debt for them."

The best course of action out of debt would be to sell the Mustang, sell the camper, quit taking vacations, and use that money to attack the debt.

If they're not willing to make sacrifices you're not going to find any "magic program" that will help them.
posted by mccxxiii at 7:00 PM on February 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Some people just don't want to be helped. They like the idea of help, but don't really give a shit about actually being helped.
posted by damnjezebel at 8:23 PM on February 19, 2008

If they don't choose what to sell and where to cut back, others will seize their assets and do it for them, and they won't like having no say in the matter. They can have a say if they do so now.
posted by oaf at 9:20 PM on February 19, 2008

I don't have any personal experience with Prosper, but it might be worth looking into - they include debt consolidation loans as one of their products. (From their About page: "Prosper is an online community where people come together for person-to-person lending and borrowing money. Borrowing money through Prosper is fast and easy, and because other people can compete for your loan, the rates may be lower than you'd expect!")
posted by kristi at 10:16 PM on February 19, 2008

[they] are totally on board

You've said this several times, but nothing else you've said supports this. That's why you're getting the answers you're getting -- you premise is faulty. The issue is not helping you get creative, everyone is trying to help you get realistic.
posted by sageleaf at 10:29 PM on February 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

They are paying $1500 more out in bills (without everyday cash spending) than they are bringing in.

How much of this is to meet credit card minimums? By my math (even estimating their retirement donations to be really high), those must be a lot. How much will paying off $20,000 of their cc: debt reduce that? I do think this is one area where a debt consolidation loan could really help.

If not, then they really start to face tough choices. I'd put it to them that way. To get in the black, they have to pay off X credit cards and get their monthly payments down below what they can pay. They have only a few options for doing this. Sell something, anything: a car, all their ski gear, their coin collection, whatever, it just has to add up to Z. Or, they can find some other source of Z. Or, they can increase your monthly income by A. I'd just give them the numbers and let them start wondering whether they might actually be able to cash in the $30k if it meant not selling the car, or whatever.

I wouldn't waste your time on the point that they're losing money by paying interest. If they cared, they wouldn't have run up their second mortgage so much. My guess is that they just care about their lifestyle and maybe what their friends think. (Hey, I've certainly been there.) But what will their friends think if they have to declare bankruptcy because there's no way for them to pay their bills? With expenses greater than income, they're in a spiral that will only take them deeper and deeper until they hit bottom, and the bottom is rushing up at them pretty quickly now.
posted by salvia at 1:07 AM on February 20, 2008

It sounds to me as if the husband is blaming KC for the mess that they are in. He's drawing a line around "his" possessions, essentially saying, "You get us out of this mess with your own stuff." KC is on board. Her husband is not.

That makes everything more difficult. At this point, he would need to be shown how he HAS contributed to the problem (if he has) through an analysis of where this money was spent which should hopefully get him on board.

If that cannot be done, is there anything of KC's that she can sell as an asset? Jewelry? Other items? Even if it is just to show her husband that she is making a good faith effort to dramatically change her ways? Maybe this will help to enlist him?

If he is contributing to the problem and is not willing to help solve it, that is a different problem altogether and I don't know what to tell you.

Here in Chicago, we have someone locally who is a CPA and a licensed therapist for this very type of situation, because this isn't only about money. It's about responsibility, maturity, power, trust, delayed gratification, communication, etc. I think that is why others are telling you to hesitate to get involved. Not because they don't want to help, but because this is so much more complex in creating and MAINTAINING a solution than "consolidate their loans."

Best of luck.
posted by jeanmari at 11:29 AM on February 20, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks to some of you for providing some direction. The situation we are trying to help with is as advertised, and they (he) is willing to do only so much. These are the parameters we are working with. Its up to them to make the changes, and with our guidance hopefully they will, and they seem to be on board with what we are telling them to do. I'll say again, we are making our best suggestions based on what they are willing to do/change. KC will do just about anything, Hubby is mainly blaming her, so he isn't sacrificing much. If she said they had to sell the house, he'd sell the cars instead, but its not *that* bad. Since its not, he's mainly leaving it to her to deal with. This si the type of guy he is. Don't need your opinion on it, just a matter of fact.

The good news is that KC said yesterday that Hubby seems to be bending on the 30K. Probably to the tune of 10 or 15 of it. So, things are getting better with respect to the situation and some of the challenges are easing a bit.

So, other than a few sites to check out it seems there is nothing special going on out there that I could use as a resource, based on everyones answers. I guess we'll make the best of what we have available to get rid of these cards and teach them how to manage all this, as well as their spending.
posted by Chuck Cheeze at 1:01 PM on February 20, 2008

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