Managing Debt is Like Dieting

Like weight gain, most of us want to avoid accumulating debt. From retirees to new college graduates, the idea of debt management has become part of the strains Americans face on a daily basis.

Melissa Hart, professor at the Poole College of Management at North Carolina State University, describes the most common types of debt, the ways in which bankruptcy affects families, and debt settlement versus debt consolidation.

Which type of debt have you found to be the most common and why?

On our campus, the two main types of debt we are seeing are credit card debt and student loan debt. Credit card debt is still an issue despite the CARD act introduced in 2010. Student loan debt is also a significant issue due to rising tuition, living expenses, and possible reduced outside financial assistance from parents.

Of course, the general population is also having issues with credit cards and mortgages. It appears that higher-than-average sustained unemployment is creating challenges to pay recurring bills. Although consumer confidence and spending have waivered, the credit cards and mortgages may be from a much longer prior time period.

How does bankruptcy affect children and parents?

Bankruptcy can definitely affect younger children and older children in profound ways. Younger children may have concerns about overall security, especially if the bankruptcy creates a dramatic change in their current living environment, school options or social network. Older children (i.e., college age) may have concerns about school funding. This can be a significant factor, as many times, payments for college will not carry a high priority with the bankruptcy courts. (It appears the thought process here is the student could get loans for the tuition, and expenses and the other debts should be paid as a higher priority.)

Bankruptcy can also have a significant impact on parents, who may be accustomed to providing for their family. Now they may be faced with the fact they can no longer support their family. In the case of a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, much of their resources and bills are monitored to ensure payment. It would seem like a relatively powerless position.

Are the debt management companies legitimate? What suggestions can you offer to help a person who is struggling with consolidating their debt?

There is a big difference between debt settlement, which includes reducing the overall amount of debt owed, and debt consolidation, which is a more formal debt management plan. Debt settlements have a significant negative impact on the person's credit, as a portion of the debt is being forgiven. The main determining factor to choose between these two plans is overall ability to pay. If a person has no chance of paying the consolidated debt amount, the plan will have no advantage. In that case, the only option may be a debt settlement plan.

Debt management companies are legit. The challenge is definitely sorting through the available companies and ensuring the one you have chosen has your best interest in mind. There are nonprofit organizations that work with people on a variety of family issues and debt situations; including budgeting, bill payment and debt counseling, for example, Triangle Family Services ( There are also credit counseling services (many are grouped by geographic area), such as Consumer Credit Counseling Service (

One last thing to remember about this issue: The challenge to consolidating debt is just like dieting. If a person finds himself overburdened with debt and finds a consolidation plan that helps him out of debt, he will more than likely find himself mired in debt sometime in the future. This is because he never changed his habits, just like dieting. Eating healthy for three weeks will probably get short-term results. Keeping those habits in the long run is a much harder prospect.

Is there a specific age group that struggles the most with debt? Is there a certain reason for this?

Money struggles seem to be affecting all demographics. For example, baby boomers are looking at reduced investment portfolios and staying longer in their current jobs while caring for aging parents. New college graduates are struggling to pay off school loans with lower starting salaries and less advancement opportunities due to the baby boomers staying longer.

There also appears to be a connection between core values and money skills learned at a young age. Most people need to understand basic budgeting concepts. These are not inherited skills; they must be taught. More high schools are adding personal finance into their curriculum to help future generations. Check National Endowment for Financial Education ( and JumpStart ( for more information.

Are government programs available to help people who are struggling with debt? Which ones do you recommend?

For mortgages, the Home Affordable Modification Program, or HAMP, program may be helpful. However, its effectiveness to fully reach the population that it was intended for has come into question. (Check out the site at

For student loans, the new Obama student loan plan has some attractive qualities and some issues of concern. Part of the plan reduces the eligible portion of discretionary income required to be paid, however, the length of repayment is concerning. Most student loan repayment plans used to be 10 years, and now they are stretching out to 20 to 25 years. This is a significant amount of interest that will accrue. Furthermore, the idea of graduating from college at the age of 22 and still paying student loans at the age of 47 when you might be getting ready to send your own children off to college is pretty depressing.

Many thanks to Melissa Hart, permanent lecturer of finance at Poole College of Management at North Carolina State University, for insights and advice in this interview.