How a Single Mother In Debt Over $200K Is Fixing Her Finances

For those of us actively trying to improve our financial situation, it's inspiring to read about others who have succeeded. Dilenia Frias is one such example, embarking upon Wise Bread's Total Financial Transformation Plan, and successfully improving her credit score, better managing her debt, and on the road to higher earnings in just a few, short months.

When we first met Dilenia in August, she shared her financial concerns with us: Over $200,000 in student loan debt, tens of thousands owed on credit cards, personal loans, and a timeshare, a damaged credit score, and relatively low earnings despite graduating law school. To top it off, Dilenia was recently unemployed for two years, and is a single mother residing in New York City, an area with arguably the highest of cost of living in the country. (See also: The Fastest Way to Eliminate Credit Card Debt)

We decided to help Dilenia tackle these challenges one-by-one, by providing methodical advice for stabilizing her debt, raising her credit score, and improving her earnings. Read on to hear Dilenia's story in her own words — and even better, her remarkable progress in the two months since we first talked.

Credit Cards

I have $8,500 in credit card debt, spread over three cards — American Express, Children's Place, and Discover cards. My cards' interest rates are anywhere from 10.99-24%, and most are maxed out or over their credit limit.

Our advice:

  • Contact your creditors, explain your situation, and request lower interest rates, if possible. Always pay on time — even if it's only your minimum payments.
  • Try to bring your balances under the credit card's limit — this will have an immediate impact on your credit score. Long-term, your goal should be to keep your balances under 30% of your total available credit. This will significantly boost your credit.
  • One useful trick for repaying cards is to make two payments per month, instead of just one. For example, if you normally make one monthly payment of $100, try making two payments of $50 each. Since interest is calculated over the entire month, this will reduce your interest owed. Plus, depending on what time of the month your card reports to the credit bureaus, it may also show a lower debt level and boost your score.
  • Don't close your credit cards — even once you pay them off! This reduces the amount of credit you have available, which lowers your credit score.

Dilenia's credit card situation now

My Equifax credit score went up 48 points to 677!

I hadn't used my Children's Place credit card in about a year, and the suggestion was to use the card for at least a small amount, so that my account wouldn't get closed for lack of use, so I spent $125 on gift cards in August. I received my bill later in August and paid it on time. I received an email approximately a week ago that my credit limit was increased from $500 to $750.

I also paid my American Express enough so that my statement only showed a $99 balance when the statement printed (so I was using a little under 20% of my credit limit). My Discover card was also a bit over the limit last month, but I brought the balance back down in time for the September statement closing date. I am still using almost 100% of my credit limit, but at least I am no longer above my credit limit.

Personal loan and timeshare

My $7,000 personal loan was unfortunately charged off in 2015, when, after leaving my job in February 2015, was only able to make payments until May 2015. I am currently paying $150 per month to the collection agency handling the account. Based on the amount owed, I would need to make payments until April 2021.

A $9,000 loan for a timeshare is also in collections. I am currently trying to negotiate a limited-use timeshare based on the payments I have already made, but was told that I needed to make a final payment to the collection agency before they would release my account to the timeshare company. If I am able to regain the timeshare, I might be able to sublease it.

Our advice:

  • Aggressively try to regain use of the timeshare on a more limited-use basis. Request that the collections agency annotate your credit report to show that your are making payments on time.
  • Once you regain limited use of the timeshare, sublease it using services such as Apply any extra money toward repaying credit cards more quickly, starting with the highest-interest card first.
  • Attempt to negotiate lower payments or interest rates directly with the personal loan collections agency. Ensure they've annotated your credit report to reflect that your account is being paid on time per your agreement.

Dilenia's personal loan and timeshare situation now

I recently made a payment to the timeshare company, and I am awaiting documents transferring ownership in my previous timeshare to a new timeshare. When the paperwork is finalized, the collection account currently being reported to my credit reports will be removed. That should also increase my score, and also allow me to sublease the unit.

Student loans

I have over $200,000 in federal student loans, most of which are being repaid via the Income Based Repayment program (IBR). However, I have over $16,000 in Perkins loans which are currently on deferment; I'll need to start making payments on these, too, by March 2018. Due to my limited income and two dependents, my current monthly payment is $0.

Our advice:

  • Consolidate all your student loans — including the Perkins loans, so that they can all be placed on IBR and result in a low payment.
  • Place your IBR account on autopay — even if your payment is $0, it may result in a slightly lower interest rate.
  • Contact your law school's employment services office and inquire whether your school offers any debt forgiveness for students in public service or other modestly-paid legal jobs.

Income, employment, and other credit boosts

In order to be admitted to the Bar, lawyers must pass a Character & Fitness (C&F) evaluation, including a credit check. Unfortunately, given Dilenia's credit issues, being denied entry to the Bar (and a higher income as an attorney) was a real possibility.

Thankfully, by bringing all of Dilenia's accounts current and boosting her credit score, C&F should be less of an issue, thus ensuring that Dilenia should be employable as an attorney by late this year. This will likely result in higher income and allow Dilenia to repay debt more aggressively. More importantly, it'll enable her to save — even a modest amount saved every month toward an emergency fund of three-to-six months' expenses will help ensure she doesn't get into this sort of trouble again. (See also: 7 Easy Ways to Build an Emergency Fund From $0)

Dilenia's 19-year-old son is also considering seeking employment to help contribute to household expenses, and once Dilenia's timeshare is subleased, the extra income can be applied to debt and emergency fund savings.

Dilenia has made great progress, and she can do more still. Dilenia should request higher credit limits on her cards once she's made twelve on-time monthly payments and dropped her balances. Then, once her cards are paid off, she should open new lines of credit — such as gas cards — and not use them. This will all result in lower credit utilization ratios — and higher credit scores.

Recently Dilenia joined eMoneyPool, since it reports user accounts to credit bureaus like Experian. eMoneyPool is an online version of a savings club in which members make regular contributions and receive "payouts" of their savings on targeted dates. She joined two $500 money-sharing pools in August, and by early September the account was added to her Experian credit report.

Dilenia can also have her rental payments reported to the credit bureaus using services such as RentTrack or RentReporters. Depending on the lender and the type of credit score they use to determine credit worthiness, this could help her with loans or other credit applications down the line.

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