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Why Avoid Bankruptcy?

A few weeks ago I was listening to a financial radio show on a day when every other caller wanted to know if they should file bankruptcy.

One man was dealing with estranged spouses (yes, plural), a failed business, and hundreds of thousands in debt. It was no surprise he was considering bankruptcy. From there, however, callers’ reasons for wanting to file bankruptcy grew far less convincing. One caller even wanted to know if her 24-year old son should file bankruptcy over a $15,000 credit card debt.

Bankruptcy in this country has its place. Ideally, bankruptcy serves debtors who are in such a hole that there is truly no other way out. Unfortunately, however, many Americans see bankruptcy as the “easy way out” of debt—just like we snatch up diet pills and a lotto tickets.

If you’re struggling with a frightening amount of debt (or know somebody who is), here’s a quick reminder of why bankruptcy should still be avoided and only used as a true last resort.

What Bankruptcy Does

Here’s the 60-second primer: Bankruptcy is designed to protect the truly insolvent from unaffordable debt. There are two kinds of individual bankruptcy: Chapter 7 and Chapter 13.

  • Under Chapter 7 bankruptcy, filers must liquidate personal assets to pay some debts, but many other debts may be discharged. Debtors must meet certain income requirements to file Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
  • Chapter 13 bankruptcy odes not eliminate debt; it establishes a court-supervised repayment plan over three to five years.

Although bankruptcy can help debtors eliminate or repay many unsecured debts like credit card and medical bills, bankruptcy does not eliminate many debts including alimony, student loans, criminal judgments, and tax debts.

Why Avoid Bankruptcy

Ruined Credit. Unsurprisingly, bankruptcy ruins your credit (if you had any left before filing). Bankruptcy stays on your credit report for at least seven and up to 10 years. That does not, however, mean that once that time has passed, you have a clean slate. Many financial applications and background checks ask if you have ever filed bankruptcy. Not in the last 10 years. Ever. Bankruptcy will follow you for life.

Expensive Borrowing. Most unsecured credit cards will flat out reject applicants with a recent bankruptcy. You may be able to arrange for a mortgage or an auto loan in time, but you may need to put up to 50 percent down and pay ridiculously high interest rates.

Filing is Tricky and Costly. Legislation enacted in 2005 makes it harder to file bankruptcy. Filers must go through credit counseling at their expense six months before filing for bankruptcy and must take a financial education class afterward. Finally, even though bankruptcy is designed for broke people, it is far from free. You can expect to pay, at the very least, $1,000 in filing fees and attorney fees.

Alternatives to Bankruptcy

The best way out of debt will always be to man up and face your debt head-on. That means making a debt repayment plan and paying up—whatever it takes.

If you need help, there are legitimate organizations that can help, like the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (800-388-2227, www.nfcc.org).

  • Need Help? Learn How to Get a Free Debt Consultation

Ads for commercial debt management programs and debt settlement companies abound, but be careful: Some debt management programs can help; debt settlement offers usually don’t.

If you’ve made significant efforts on your own to repay your debts and have already tried getting help from one of the above sources—especially if you owe more than you earn in a year—bankruptcy may be an option. Just do your homework and ensure you have exhausted other options before you proceed.

Finally, if you do go forward, find and hire an attorney you trust.

Published or updated on December 3, 2009

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About David Weliver

David Weliver is the founding editor of Money Under 30. He's a cited authority on personal finance and the unique money issues we face during our first two decades as adults. He lives in Maine with his wife and two children.


We invite readers to respond with questions or comments. Comments may be held for moderation and will be published according to our comment policy. Comments are the opinions of their authors; they do not represent the views or opinions of Money Under 30.

  1. Bankruptcy isn’t the only way to clear up your finances. Most of the time it is your last option. An experienced financial planner, attorney, or industry expert can help you decide. Get multiple opinions. Also, many firms offer free consultations or free advice. Take it! Especially if you’re just trying to get a feel for what’s right for you.

  2. People are always trying to skate around their responsibilties.

    If you rack up 50k in credit card debt, you should have to pay for it.

    -Dan Malone-

  3. Speak Your Mind