Through April 20, 2022, Experian, TransUnion and Equifax will offer all U.S. consumers free weekly credit reports through AnnualCreditReport.com to help you protect your financial health during the sudden and unprecedented hardship caused by COVID-19.
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U.S. households collectively owed nearly $14.9 trillion as of 2020, according to Experian data. That works out to an average individual debt balance of $92,727. So don't blame yourself if you aren't sure exactly how much debt you've got.
Ultimately, there's no one-stop shop that's guaranteed to show you each and every debt you owe. Finding out what debts you owe might require you to do a little financial homework, such as checking your credit reports, looking through old bills or calling creditors.
Check Your Credit Reports
The first stop in determining what debts you owe should be to get your credit reports from the three major credit bureaus: Experian, TransUnion and Equifax.
Creditors generally report debt accounts to one or more credit bureau, which then add it to the credit report they maintain. Account types you'll be able to find on your credit reports include credit cards, personal loans, mortgages and more. Your credit report lists the amount owed on every account, along with its status and payment history, and contact information for the creditor handling the debt.
Under federal law, you can obtain one free copy of your credit report every 12 months by visiting AnnualCreditReport.com. You also can see your free Experian credit report at any time. Through April 20, 2022, the three bureaus are offering all U.S. consumers free weekly credit reports through AnnualCreditReport.com.
Some Debts May Not Show Up On Your Credit Report
Most major lenders report account activity to the credit bureaus, but they're not required to. Therefore, a creditor may not share your account information with the credit bureaus.
Old debts may not be included on your credit report, depending on how old they are. Even if they originally appear on your credit reports, accounts closed in good standing are removed from your reports after 10 years. Accounts closed as a result of late payments are removed after seven.
There are also exceptions to the types of debt you might expect to find on your report. Medical debt, for instance, is generally not listed on credit reports unless it becomes severely past due and is reported as a collection account. Retailer payment plans aren't commonly reported to the credit bureaus, either.
In some cases, the account will only appear on your credit report if the creditor turns your account over to a debt collection agency. Typically, the original creditor will be listed along with the collection account.
If you don't see a debt on your credit report, you also can search through old bills or contact creditors to nail down all the debts you owe.
How to Pay Your Debts After Finding Them
So, once you've pinpointed what debts you owe, what's next? It's time to pay them off. Here are four steps you can take to make that happen:
- Create a list of all your debts. This includes credit cards, student loans, personal loans and car loans. With each debt, be sure to highlight who you owe, the amount you owe, the interest rate and the minimum monthly payment.
- Prioritize your debts. As you're reviewing the list of debts, consider paying off the highest-interest debt before any other debt.
- Set up a budget. To put together a budget, go over your monthly income and expenses, then match them with your financial goals (like paying off your debts within a year, for example). Once your budget is in place, stick to it by closely monitoring your income and expenses. Don't be afraid to adjust your budget if it isn't working for you, or you find it impossible to stick to.
- Pick a payoff method. There are two common methods to choose from: The debt avalanche method wipes out the highest-interest debt first, then the next-highest-interest debt and so on, and the debt snowball method focuses on the smallest debt first before moving on to other debt. These methods are particularly helpful with credit card debt, when it may be difficult to know where to start. Because paying off a mortgage in a year or even five is probably unlikely, you can limit your payoff strategy to debts you can reasonably expect to pay off over a shorter time period.
What to Do if Your Debt Is Already in Collections
As you go over your accounts, you may find debt that is in collections. If this is the case, don't ignore it—pretending the debt doesn't exist won't make it disappear. Tackling it as soon as possible will eventually put an end to the collections calls, and quell those worries about the money you owe.
Other potential action you can take once your debt is in collections includes:
- Requesting that the debt collector stop contacting you. If you make this request in writing, a debt collector must cut off contact in most cases.
- Negotiating what you owe. A debt collector may be willing to settle for a lump-sum amount that's less than the amount due or may be open to a payment plan.
- Seeking assistance from a nonprofit credit counseling service. A credit counselor may be able to develop a plan for paying off debt that's in collections and also come up with a household budget for you that prevents you from falling behind on more debt.
- Hiring an attorney. When the situation becomes extremely stressful—the debt collector threatens to take you to court, for instance—it may be time to seek legal help.
The Bottom Line
Figuring out which debts you owe can put you on the path toward financial peace of mind. One of the best ways to be a debt detective is to regularly check your credit reports, including your free credit report from Experian.