Dear Debt Adviser,
Through some foolish mistakes and bad health, some of my bills went to collection agencies. Now I want to start to pay them off, but I have a question. Can I pay the original creditor, or must I pay the collection agency? I really would rather pay the original creditor.
-- Becky

Dear Becky,
I'm glad you have worked through your health issues and past mistakes. Don't beat yourself up too badly! This sort of thing happens all the time. The important thing to focus on now is that all this was in the past, and you are on the road to a better life. All that is left is to work through the consequences. I can understand you would feel more comfortable working with your original creditors to pay what you owe, and you can certainly contact them and make the request.

But try to realize that for them, your delinquent accounts are in the past, and your creditors have also moved on by sending you to a collector. It has been my experience that most will not be willing to work with you directly once the account has been placed for outside collection or sold, but it would not hurt to ask. The long and the short of it is to be prepared to deal with the situation as it exists today, not as you would like it to be.

What I want you to do first, if you have not done so already, is develop a spending plan, so you know exactly how much you can afford each month to pay down your debt. When negotiating with your creditors, you will need to be prepared with a monthly or lump sum amount you know you can afford and not allow payment-starved collectors to pressure you into an agreement for more than you can pay.

When you are ready, contact the original creditor in writing (send the communication certified mail with a return receipt request), and outline your repayment plan. Request that they answer you in writing if they agree with your plan. It is important to have documentation of the terms of the payment plan agreement. If you decide to contact them by phone, you'll probably get an answer sooner. Just be sure to get all agreements in writing, and don't make a payment until you do.

If the thought of negotiating with your creditors and collectors is overwhelming or you would just rather not do it yourself, you have a couple of options. You can hire an attorney who specializes in consumer issues, and he or she will communicate and negotiate with your creditors for you. Your legal options include a debt repayment plan, a settlement or a bankruptcy. Your lawyer will explain all your options and advise you. You won't have to deal with collection phone calls once you have hired an attorney. The collector can no longer communicate directly with you once you have counsel. They must communicate with your attorney.

Your second option is to contact a nonprofit consumer credit counseling agency. They will negotiate a repayment plan on your behalf with your creditors. You'll pay the agency a small monthly fee along with the negotiated monthly payment for your creditors each month. And the counseling agency will send the payments to your creditors. You can pay off your accounts faster than the plan requires once you are enrolled or even in a lump sum anytime you have it. You can find a qualified agency by visiting the websites of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies.

Good luck!

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