Lots of news floating around about how a new legislative proposal where the federal government would take 10% of a student’s wages as an automatic payment for student loans, basically a garnishment, and this may affect many of the current 44 Million borrowers. This suggestion has drawn fire from many consumer law advocates, like myself, who feel that this plan would allow the government to prioritize student loan debt above necessary living expenses; food, utilities, shelter, and transportation. But this proposal also has me thinking about the state of current student loan garnishment structure.

Garnishment is simply a “forced” withholding of part of a consumer’s income in response to a debt. Federal Student Loans are subject to “administrative wage garnishment” and will not need a court order if the borrower is in default. The current percentage of wages which is subject to administrative wage garnishment is 15% of a borrower’s “disposable income”, defined as the net check, or income after withholding taxes and other deductions. But this 15% is after mandatory minimum amounts that are protected from any garnishment. I will cover both consumers earning regular wages, and then consumers on fixed Social Security income.

Please note that PRIVATE student loans require a court order and a judgement against the borrower before the lender can garnish. Also note that the total amount of garnishment for debt allowed by law is 25% of the debtor’s wages… meaning, I am going to talk at the 15% rate in this article, but if the consumer already has a garnishment from somewhere else, the total garnishment cannot exceed 25%, so the federal student loan garnishment may be less than the full 15%.

For Consumers Earning Wages

The rule is 15% of wages after deductions, but what exactly does that mean? First of all, there are minimum amounts that are “exempt from levy” meaning, that amount cannot be touched for any reason by federal student loan garnishment. The current amount, as of this article, is 30 times the minimum wage after deductions. This means, at the current minimum wage, which is at $7.25 an hour (15 USC §1673), the consumer “keeps” the first $217.50 per week. That is the amount “exempted” from any garnishment calculation. The government can then take the LESSER of either the amount that is left after the $217.50, OR 15% of the consumer’s total income. It can be confusing, so a few examples are in order.

A. Consumer’s net income is $300.00 per week. After the exempted $217.50, the consumer has $82.50 left over. 15% of the $300.00 is $45.00. The government can take the LESSER amount, or $45.00 per week. In perspective, out of $1200.00 net income per month, the government can take $180.00. (This is why us student loan/ consumer law types want to do everything possible within the law to prevent garnishment for student loan delinquency.)

B. Consumer’s net income is $500.00 per week. After the exempted $217.50, the consumer has $282.50. But, 15% of $500 is $75.00, so the LESSER is $75.00 a week, or $300.00 per month. Another ouch. This is one reason that over a certain threshold, the calculation is almost always just 15% of disposable income.

One more thing, both Federal Pension and Private Retirement payments that are exempted from garnishment for debts in most states, is also subject to garnishment for delinquent student loans.

For Consumers on Social Security Retirement and Social Security Disability

Unfortunately, most of the time when I run into the “offset” (garnishment) of social security payments, it is because the consumer co-signed someone else’s student loan. If the borrower becomes permanently disabled, there are administrative actions that can be taken towards forgiveness of the federal loan debt. This is true for federal loans where the student passes away as well. But there are many cases where the Department of Education is offsetting Social Security Retirement Income (SSRI) and Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) payments. SSI, the program for the indigent, is exempted from “offset”.

Social Security Retirement and Disability are subject to an “offset” to recover federal debts since 2001 under the “Debt Collection Improvement Act of 1996.” The Department of Education can offset up to 15% (31 USC §3716). The amount offset is the LESSER of 1. The total amount of the debt 2. The amount that exceeds $750.00 per month, OR 3. 15% of the total benefit amount.
Here are the actual examples from the legislation:

Example 1:
A debtor receives a monthly benefit payment of $850. The amount that is offset is the lesser of $127.50 (15% of 850) or $100 (the amount by which $850 exceeds $750). In this example, $100 would be offset.
Example 2:
A debtor receives a monthly benefit of $1250. The amount that is offset is the lesser of $187.50 (15% of 1250) or $500 (the amount by which 1250 exceeds 750). In this example, the offset amount is $187.50 (assuming the debt is $187.50 or more).
If the recipient receives $750 or less, nothing will be offset.

(from: 31 C.F.R. § 285.4(e)(3)(i), 31 C.F.R. § 285.4(e)(3)(ii), & 31 C.F.R. § 285.4(e)(3)(iii))

Alternatives to Default, Garnishment or Offset

I have covered in previous articles how dangerous it is to a consumer’s financial future if they default on student loans. There are currently nine, that is right, NINE repayment options available through the Department of Education for student loans, and while nobody qualifies for all of them, many qualify for more than two. So PLEASE readers, know your options. Please do not let your student loans go 269 days past due. Call your servicer or a student loan attorney if you need help. If you have private student loans, the payment options may be limited. But contact the lender if there is a problem making your payment. As for the topic that inspired this article, legislation proposing the 10% monthly payment option. You can see how it would begin to prevent defaults, and the amount proposed is less than the current garnishment scheme. But then again, I believe consumers should control their income and not have to choose between food and federal debts. A garnishment is imposed because federal student loan notices were ignored, or nine total monthly payments were missed in a row.

I am a lawyer, so it may be odd that I recommend to many people that they should try financial coaching as an option before filing for Chapter 13 bankruptcy. It is also, in many cases, an unpopular opinion with both consumers and some lawyers. I’ll get this out of the way upfront. Yes, I can take a bankruptcy matter, but I find there are many cases where it may do more harm than good. It is also tax refund season, and many people wait for their refund to file so they can afford the bankruptcy filing fees. In fact, I have received a few calls in my practice about it lately, so I thought I would get my rationale into an article.

First, a few bankruptcy basics. When most people think about filing bankruptcy, they are referring to a Chapter 7. A Chapter 7 bankruptcy (meaning filed under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code) wipes out or “liquidates” almost all of the debtors unsecured debt, but there are exceptions. As well as some rules regarding secured debt such as cars and mortgages. It’s not just a wave of a magic wand, and since 2008, requires the debtor “pass” means test, if the household income is below certain thresholds. There are of course special exceptions, and what law doesn’t have exceptions?

What if the consumer “fails” the means test? Then the bankruptcy code they are eligible to file under is a Chapter 13. A Chapter 13 is basically a court approved repayment plan to creditors. The bankruptcy filing creates an estate, and a bankruptcy trustee manages the repayment for three to five years until it is completed and the bankruptcy (estate) is discharged.

So now we know the basics, why coaching before filing? My top three reasons.

First, the consumer keeps control of his or her income while debt is paid. When a consumer files bankruptcy, all of the debts and all of the income are listed on various “schedules.” The consumer’s assets, meaning property, bank accounts, disposable monthly income, etc. become the “bankruptcy estate.” This includes the consumer’s income, because it is what the filer is promising the bankruptcy court he or she will use to repay the debts. A repayment plan is submitted to the court, and if approved, the estate (with the payment plan) will be managed by a bankruptcy trustee, who works for the court.

So, the consumer no longer gets to control his or her income. It is an asset promised to pay debts, and all debts are paid from this estate for the length of time that bankruptcy is in repayment. This also means that any income increase, such as a raise or bonus, at any time the estate still exists will belong to the trustee. The trustee may demand that more money be paid to the creditors, particularly if the increase exceeds 10% of the consumer’s current income. And you cannot lie to the court. Never a good idea. And most of the time the consumer must submit personal tax returns to the court annually anyway. This is for as long as the estate exists.

Only after discharge will the consumer regain control. While it is true a certain percentage of the debt can be discharged at discharge, most of the debt must be repaid. The general rule is that at least as much of the debt that would have been discharged if the consumer qualified for a chapter 7, and the court can order more based on disposable income and assets.

Another note, if the consumer owes family money, and pays some of it back in the months preceding a bankruptcy filing, the trustee, under what is known as a “claw back,” can demand the family member return the money so it can be added to the estate. This is because the court will presume that the money was paid to a “preferred” creditor.

Second, coaching can help change attitudes and habits, a bankruptcy often doesn’t. Consumers are already required to go through a credit counseling type personal finance class before filing any bankruptcy and again before it can be discharged. I can’t speak to the effectiveness of these courses. But you can potentially see the limited change in money habits these courses have by looking at the average of Chapter 13 bankruptcies that successfully make if the full five years to discharge.

Only about one in three approved payment plans makes it through to discharge. Yup. Only about 33%. Yikes. Another statistic? Approximately 8% of bankruptcies are from re-filers, which account for about 16% of annual filings. More than 1 in 20 filings each year are from consumers who already filed once before. Yes, life can happen to anyone, and I am not here to judge, but if the consumer worked with a Ramsey Preferred Coach, I would take a bet that there would have been an emergency fund prior to that second filing.

When someone works with a coach, the repayment of debt comes not from fear of the court or trustee, but from a sincere desire to change from habits that can be personally harmful, to those habits that give peace of mind. The “not owing a monthly payment to anyone who charges a $39.00 fee if you are one second late with a payment” peace of mind. Also, a coach can keep you accountable. How can you forget to budget if you meet with a coach each month for a while? What if something comes up and you have a question? There is a coach walking beside you for support. Coaching is not forever either, and many people don’t even need three to five years of coaching, unlike a Chapter 13.

Third, the consumer may be asked about filing a bankruptcy long after it is removed from a credit report, and it may affect future opportunities. I find this to be a heartbreaking fact that many people do not really consider prior to filing. Everyone is thinking about the credit report, the “ten years” hit in the “public records” section. But that is just one part. Consumers are often asked on a job application, mortgage loan application, security clearance application, “Have you ever filed bankruptcy?” Which is not the same as, “Have you filed bankruptcy in the last ten years?” And the “have you ever” question must be answered YES. This can lead to loss of some future opportunities that were never even thought of before.

Jobs in law enforcement, for example, are difficult to obtain after filing. Not to lie, even getting a license to practice law can be a challenge because an applicant may not pass the Moral Fitness requirement. Military or government jobs requiring a clearance may be an issue. So, while there is protection against losing your job during a bankruptcy, and protection from discrimination at your current employer, no such protection exists if you try to change jobs later in private industry.

And that’s it. My three biggest reasons for advising consumers to try coaching first, before filing a chapter 13 bankruptcy. If you or someone you know is in a financial situation where bankruptcy has been raised in conversation, you (or they) may want to have a chat with a financial coach, first.

The National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) recently published a report on debt collections and complaints surrounding those collection actions for 2018. This report includes an online interactive map, which can be searched by state, showing the statistics on the percentage of the state residents in collections, along with the top complaint types against debt collectors. Honestly, it’s an ugly state of affairs. And if you, my reader, are currently in collections, you may want to take a look at the information for your state. I promise, you are NOT alone in the frustration and fear surrounding collections, particularly when bad actors break the law. The top three complaints reported by the NCLC?

> “Calls After Getting ‘Stop Calling’ Notice” (227,917 complaints),
> “Calls Repeatedly” (210,238 complaints),
> “Makes False Representation about Debt” (192,704 complaints),

I also promise you, dear reader, these numbers are way underreported. A vast number of consumers won’t complain. Won’t assert their rights. And collectors know this, which is why they continue to violate federal law. The Urban Institute reported in July 2018 that 71 million American adults had at least one account in collections. 71 million Americans in collections, yet under one million complaints against collection agencies who violate the law.

There is a very honorable, yet misguided reason, many people won’t report harassment from collectors. Because they owe the money. But do they really? One of the biggest complaints is that consumers are harassed about debts that don’t owe, or that are time-barred form a lawsuit when the statute of limitations runs out. That’s right. The debt can become too old for a lawsuit. Still on the consumer’s report? Sure. Consumer still technically owes the money? Sure. But the consumer cannot be sued in court.

This is a huge distinction under the law and there is one mistake many consumers make. The statute of limitations will be restated if any payment is made on the account, no matter how small. Let me reiterate that very important point: Collectors will harass, call, and threaten a consumer for just, “any payment at all” because if the consumer gives them even a dollar on a debt that is too old to sue on, THE CONSUMER WILL RESTART THE STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS.

And they won’t warn the consumer that the debt they are calling on is too old, sometimes called a “zombie” debt. Why? Because it is part of their business model. They aren’t obligated by the law to tell the debtor. They will call and ask the consumer to settle. If the consumer makes ANY payment or promise, and revives they statute of limitations, the consumer is again are at risk for a lawsuit. Even if the debt was only days from being time-barred. So they do it. Call on very, very old debt. And they will harass the consumer to try to get them to settle again, or start to threaten with a lawsuit. And make no mistake, threatening a lawsuit when they do not intend to follow through is a violation of the law. Credit.com has an interactive map with the statute of limitations for each state. It’s possible that the collector may, however, still report a time-barred debt to the credit bureaus. Unless the debt is too old for the collector to do that either. And they won’t tell the consumer that tidbit either when they call.

But, there is some good news, and some maybe not good news on the horizon for 2019. First, the good news. Many states have debt collection laws that are stronger than the Federal Debt Collection Practices Act. Ans some states are taking aggressive action to force collectors to tell consumers when the debts are too old. California, for example, recently enacted legislation that require collectors to place specific notices on communications to ensure consumers know when the collector is trying to collect a time-barred debt, including an additional notification if the debt is so old it can no longer be reported to the credit bureaus under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Many states have an “Unfair Practices Act” type set of laws as well that have protections for consumers, these vary by state.

Now, for the maybe good news. On the national level, The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is expected to take steps this March and release some changes to the rules around debt collection practices on the federal level. Consumer advocates are pushing for those changes to include a rule requiring Collectors give written notification to consumers when a debt is too old for a law suit or too old to be reported on the consumer’s credit report. I’ll let you know what comes out. For now, there are a few things to remember to do if you are in this situation:

1. Check your state statute of limitation for consumer debt before making ANY payment, no matter how small, to a collector.

2. If you are being harassed, or a collector is trying to get a payment on a debt you do not owe, contact a consumer advocacy agency or attorney and find out the federal and state laws available to protect you.

This is the week that the IRS is estimated to process to filers. In the first quarter of every calendar year federal (and sometimes state) tax refunds are issued to qualified filers. In fact the average tax refund for the 2018 filing year (2017 return) was over $2,200.00. I’ve already spoken about how to ensure every dollar you can keep goes into your pocket each month, and not into the IRS coffers (until you file the next year’s return). Another issue, comes from the fact that the money received by many taxpayers is immediately spent paying down debt accrued the previous year. Some of that debt is from short-term overspending during the holidays, accounting for about 39% of Americans using the refund to clear that debt.

It is this cycle of annual debt that needs to be addressed, because if $1,000.00 of that refund was placed into a “baby” emergency fund, many Americans would not have to incur debt for “emergencies.” The stats are incredibly scary. The latest figure is that 78% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Almost 8 in 10. Following the logic, everyone knows at least a few people who are unable to cover even the smallest of budget hits without putting another bill in jeopardy. Additionally, a full 70% of Americans are in debt.

The recent government shutdown highlighted that for many Americans just treading water with money, they are one missed payday from being in financial distress. And we all saw the comments and memes about how government workers should have something put away or should be able to cover one month of expenses. Based on the statistics, 8 out of 10 cannot.

So, why am I telling you this? If you have a tax refund coming, and do not have $1000.00 saved for an emergency, you are not taking full benefit of the Uncle Sam Savings Plan. $1,000.00 goes a long way for car or home repairs, unexpected expenses, and other hits to the budget that throw a wrench in how the bills are paid. And once you put $1,000.00 away, be diligent in keeping it that way. Refill it if it gets used. Seriously. Mike and I had a pipe burst recently during the Polar Vortex, and we mopped up the water, grumbled a little, and called the plumber, knowing it could be covered from the emergency fund. (For Ramsey listeners, we are finishing baby step 2.)

Of course, $1,000.00 isn’t a “full” emergency fund, which is three to six months of expenses saved, but it is a good start to cover many, many of the instances where Murphy moved into the spare bedroom for a week. Of course, my next piece advice is to get out of debt as fast as you can, so YOU control your income, not some credit card company or bank. When you commit to payments, you promise to give them a share of your income each month, no matter what life throws at you. And I would strongly urge anyone getting the “average” refund to apply the $1200.00 over that emergency fund starter towards any outstanding debt.

Somewhere around 80% of taxpayers get some sort of tax refund each year, and that was true again for 2017. The average refund amount was $2878.00. And while many people love to celebrate the lump sum when they get the check, the IRS shouldn’t be used as a savings account. Here are a few reasons why:

1. You could actually have the money to use throughout the year. If an employee paid every two weeks adjusted their withholding to be accurate as to what they really will owe, that average “refund” of $2787.00 becomes $110.00 in the paycheck every payday. This equates to roughly $220.00/ month into the household! With 78% of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, that is a big addition to the monthly budget.

2. The IRS controls the overpayment until they give it back. The IRS doesn’t pay interest on the extra amount you paid or allow you to access your own money until tax time. Once you have it withheld, or you send it in for the self-employed, it is in the IRS coffers until you file your tax return. And the government isn’t paying you any interest on the money they get to use until they have to refund the excess you gave them. In reality, you are losing control of your own income.

3. The cycle of debt/ pay with return is expensive. Many Americans go into debt throughout the year and pay off balances with a tax refund. This allows lenders to charge interest, even short term, and the debt is much more expensive than if the money was in your budget every month to use. An extra $220.00 a month can prevent the need to take on short term and expensive debt, especially if you use that money for an emergency fund.

It’s too late to affect your 2018 tax return and refund, because the 2018 tax year closed about a week ago on December 31st. But you can make changes now to bring home more money in each check, and to prevent a huge sum being refunded in 2019. Check your withholding, by checking your paystub, or ask HR. If you had a change in dependents such as a new baby, kid graduated and moved out, or got divorced, make sure the number of people you are paying taxes for is accurate.

For example, a family of four should be withholding properly for a family of four. One special note for a two-income family-the higher earner should be withholding the proper number of dependents; the second earner should claim zero. This prevents under withholding and a tax bill at the end of the year.

After your adjustments, enjoy the new sum in your paycheck, and for the first few months, why not squirrel the extra away in an account? You haven’t seen it regularly anyway. Only once a year in that government tax refund.

It’s close enough to Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday to talk a bit about online shopping. Some very scary statistics from 2017 showed a marked increase in online shopping fraud, using stolen credit and debit card numbers. This is not necessarily surprising because consumers are starting to trust online ordering, and the total number of “eCommerce” transactions were up by 19% over 2016 numbers. Sadly, the number of fraudulent transactions during the 2017 holiday season also increased, to 22% over 2016. And a staggering 1 in 85 transactions online was an attempted fraud. GAH!

Online retailers are taking steps to prevent fraud such as collecting IP addresses and requiring the “CVV” or verification code on the back of the card used for a purchase. But, while they do their part to protect their businesses from fraud (yes, they sustain incredible losses from fraud, it isn’t only the consumer), there are easy steps you can take to minimize the risk of being a victim of credit or debit card fraud:

1. Use Unique Usernames and Passwords for Each Merchant

Never reuse usernames and passwords for multiple merchants. If the retailer is compromised, and your login is stolen, thieves can log in to other sites using your information and make unauthorized purchases. This time of year, shipping and billing addresses often differ, so that delivery address discrepancy may not trigger a “potential fraud” flag on the merchant side. Yes, it can be a pain, but so can losing all of your holiday money temporarily until the bank refunds your fraudulent losses.

2. Check the HTTP (S)

The “s” at the end of the hypertext transfer protocol (you bet I had to look that one up) means, https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/281633 “secure.” The security includes data encryption. When you are on a site with only, “http” the data sent to the site can be intercepted by a third party.

3. Use the Code on the Back of the Card

The three or four digit verification number on your credit or debit card is requested to prove that you have the physical card in your possession when making a purchase. In addition to a billing address and card number match, the code can help reduce fraud by requiring a third data point for a purchase.

4. Limit the Potential Financial Loss

This is particularly important for debit card users who shop online this holiday season. Have a second (free) checking account with a debit card for online purchases, and only put enough in the account to cover your shopping budget. This limits the potential loss if the card used online is compromised. And always use the same card, tied to the dedicated account, when shopping online, or traveling.

5. Keep Copies of Everything and Watch Your Accounts and Statements

Print out copies of invoices and receipts. This way you have confirmation of what you ordered, and the total amount paid. If your card is compromised, you will be able to flag unauthorized purchases, while confirming the ones you actually made. And watch your statements and account carefully. Some financial institutions have a feature where you can receive an alert (we get a text) if there is a purchase made over a specific threshold. One word of caution, however, my husband was alerted to his holiday gift by this feature. The bank let him know when I purchased his gift.

There is a real emotional toll on consumers who have lost money and had to file fraud reports over the holidays. Nobody needs that stress and frustration while trying to buy gifts or make travel arrangements. There is one other layer of protection available you should consider: make sure you take advantage of the FREE credit freeze to limit access to your personal information, reducing the risk of a fraudster opening a new account using your identity.

 

flickr.com

It’s November! Tis the season for increased identity theft. The increased risk is due to the sheer number of transactions, hacking attempts, and ecommerce fraud attempts, which is staggering. Even more staggering? According to a report by the Identity Theft Resource Center, while most consumers detect identity theft within three months about 16% of consumers won’t detect identity theft for three years. Wow.

One of the more surprising things I read on this topic is that stolen personal information was widely used to purchase very authentic looking “fake” paychecks and other documents online, which thieves used to open accounts and even rent apartments. Since chip cards are making it harder to commit credit card fraud, auto loan fraud is growing. And the thieves are creating “synthetic identities” where the fraudsters steal some of a consumers real information and combine it with fake information, such as using a new address for statements.

The consistent thread in all identity theft schemes is that a fraudster has a consumer’s personal information. Maybe not everything, but enough to convince someone else that the thief is really the identity of the victim. And the credit bureaus have that personal information. They have it all. The three credit reporting bureaus are goldmines for personal information for ID thieves, and these keepers of your info have been hacked by savvy criminals to get it.

The only option is to freeze your credit report. A “credit freeze” restricts access to your credit reports to themselves and currently open accounts. But not everyone took the steps required to freeze accounts, even if they were not looking to open new credit, because those freezes averaged about $30.00 and were only free AFTER they were a victim of ID theft. And there were additional fees to “thaw” the account for access by new lenders for a specified period of time. But now all of those fees are gone. You do not have to pay a fee anymore. New credit law changes, effective September 21, 2018, mean any consumer can freeze and unfreeze their credit file for free. Here’s what you need to know.

1. You have to contact each bureau individually to have the freeze placed on each.
Here are the contact links and numbers to do so. You will have to verify your identity with personal info to freeze your reports, so have that ready.

Equifax or 800-349-9960
Experian or 888-397-3742
TransUnion or 888-909-8872

2. You can get a free freeze for your children who are under 16. And you can also place a free freeze for anyone that you have a valid power of attorney for, when you are a fiduciary, guardian or a conservator.

3. You can still access your own credit reporting records and can order your free annual credit reports from www.annualcreditreport.com. Make sure you only use Annual Credit report, that’s the free one authorized by federal law.

4. Any current creditors or debt collectors will continue to have access after the freeze is placed.

For more information, you can read the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s) directly from the Federal Trade Commission. I encourage every consumer to set aside time before the holidays to put freezes on their credit reports, which will help to protect themselves, their children, and people at risk, from identity theft.

 

Continue reading “Great News- We Now Get FREE Credit Freezes”

The Fair Issacs Corporation, the creators of the mysteriously calculated FICO Credit Score, are changing the scoring method using new criteria, again. In early 2019, a new scoring method will allow consumers to contribute their banking information to a third party, Finicity, which, “allows Americans to benefit from positive financial behaviors.” The idea is that if you are newer to credit, or have a lower score, the credit bureau can have a look at your checking, savings, and money market accounts to check your credit worthiness. One argument in support of this new approach is that consumers do not currently have any input into their credit scores, because the FICO is calculated only on debt account data submitted by creditors and lenders.

Fair enough. What could possibly go wrong?

From my lowly perch, a lot. First of all, while the consumer will have a choice of accounts to include, they will not have any control over how it is collected, and whether the information is kept by the credit bureau. The process, as published in the Wall Street Journal, is as follows,“Experian will compile consumers’ banking information with help from financial-technology firm Finicity and will distribute the new score to lenders.” Yeah, read that again, Experian will send a summary of consumer bank accounts to lenders. FICO won’t keep any of that information after the score is calculated, but the credit bureau will have your banking Information.

Anyone hear about the hack on Equifax? Anyone? Of course, you have. Well, have you heard about the Experian hack? 15 Million T-Mobile customers personal data was hacked via Experian, including social security and passport numbers. Lovely. Since I don’t use T-Mobile, I am already standing in line to provide my banking info. Eyeroll. It’s already happened once, and they will not be less of a target if they are the bureau with your bank accounts.

Cybersecurity aside, who here believes that when the UltraFICO is available, creditors will accept the FICO? Lenders know the consumer can opt in banking information, so why not rely on the UltraFICO for lending decisions? This is the plot from the classic children’s book by Laura Joffe Numeroff, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. The lesson? If you give a mouse a cookie, he will want a glass of milk, then a straw, then a napkin, and on and on.

So, why the change? Benevolent Credit Bureaus? Hardly. Since the housing melt down, the pool of traditionally “highly qualified” borrowers shrunk. The change is due to lenders requesting, “credit-reporting firms and FICO to figure out a way to help them boost lending without taking on significantly more risk.” Oh.

As a consumer law advocate, I see danger ahead. Who would be “at fault” if banking information is compromised? Any hack could mean consumer’s accounts are cleaned out until the necessary fraud investigations are completed, and the money is returned by the bank. Missed or late mortgage, car payments, or utility bills can have consequences and mean financial insecurity for the most basic needs of a family. Will your mortgage company waive the late fee if it isn’t your fault? Will the electric company leave the lights on? If not, late fees on every bill owed by the American family could add up to hundreds of dollars. And over 75% of families already live paycheck to paycheck. In my humble opinion, a “free” 12-month credit monitoring product is not going to repair that mess. Or, maybe I am just a cynic and Fair Isaacs is looking out for consumers.

 

photo:credit.org

In many states, the driver’s license and car registration expire on your birthday. The not so gentle reminder that you are a year older, and they want money. When you stop and really think about it, there are probably a few things that are renewed annually. My Microsoft 365 for example, some insurance types, etc. These are not necessarily discretionary items- many of us need computer programs and certain insurances to work and protect our property. So, because I am a nerd, I started to think about the annual fees we pay, and when they are due.

Lawyering bar fees and practice related fees aside (which are also annual) our family pays roughly $468.00 a year for various things. Our computer programs, including virus and malware stuff, state registration renewal on two vehicles, and yes, I have Amazon Prime (I can explain, but I don’t want to). The due dates are sprinkled throughout the year, with some due in November, March, July… you get the idea. Since we know these fees are coming every year, we should plan for them. Lots of people plan for Christmas, birthdays, holidays and may save a bit aside, but not for our expected, routine, boring annual commitments.

If we round up our annual commitments to $500.00 a year, and divide that by twelve, I have to save roughly $42.00 a month to cover these fees. If I receive 26 paychecks a year (paid bi-weekly) I have to save about $19.25 each payday to meet our commitments. This is the basic idea of a “sinking fund,” aptly named because businesses deposit money into these accounts to “sink the debt” (fun fact)**.

Placing the estimated amount of money into a “holding” type account or reserving them separately in your checking account will allow you to have the funds available when the payments are due. Here are a few things to consider when you decide to start a sinking fund, and save a little each payday for your expected annual expenses:

1. Make sure IF you open a separate CHECKING account at the bank, you have a FREE account. Service fees will eat up what you put aside and cause you to go a bit backwards. I recommend a small(ish) regional bank or credit union for these accounts.

2. Do NOT open a SAVINGS type account if you will make frequent withdrawals to pay these bills as they come due. “Regulation D” is a federal rule that limits the amount to free transfers or withdrawals to six, afterward, you can be charged a fee for each additional .

3. Have that baby emergency fund,$500-$1000.00 saved, BEFORE you start a sinking fund. Those pesky little emergencies, such as the need to buy a tire or repair a leaking faucet, can quickly eat up the money you allocated for other expenses.

4. In the beginning, you may have a bit of overlap with what’s due and what is saved, so you may have to pay a bit more and continue saving. I know if you are living paycheck to paycheck this doesn’t always allow much room, but if you don’t start soon enough before the next expense, you may have to stretch. Example: You have $85.00 due in three months. You typically put away $21.00/ month. In three months, you have $63.00 saved, but are $21.00 short. Pay the $85.00, but still try to put away the $21.00 so you are on track for the next expense due.

It’s so easy to get frustrated we forget when the annual bills come due, and of course they still come due. Consider the sinking fund as a way to put a little away each check to cover what you will need. The stress is really reduced when the amount you need for an expected expense isn’t squeezed 100% from the same paycheck.

**And for all of you bond asset types, yes, there is a sinking fund term meaning to pay a trustee an amount to retire bond debts before they come due… though most of us have no idea what that even means. I just don’t want angry email.