Picking up the Pieces Slowly but Surely!

An old colleague called me up after reading one of my articles. We spent some time reminiscing about the old times and the people we had worked with before he came to the real reason he had called me. I knew he had lost his job in 2009 and his divorce had also put a lot of pressure on his finances.

Although as a finance professional he understood the value of a good credit standing but circumstances had forced him to start defaulting on his car loan and credit cards after his entire savings were wiped out to pre-pay the home loan (his ex-wife got the flat) and to meet his day to day expenses during his unemployed days.

He wanted to make a fresh start as he had just managed to get a job offer but his defaults were now beginning to affect his life. He was aware that he would need to repair his credit standing but was not aware of how to go about it. That rang a bell. I have been asked similar questions by a lot of people who either through circumstances (like my friend) or because of lack of financial discipline had defaulted on their financial obligations but were now wanting to make amends but did not know how to.

First a crash course on what happens when you default on your financial obligations. Today every lender is required to share data about the repayment history of their borrowers with at least one credit Information Company (generically known as CIBIL since Credit Information Company of India Ltd Or CIBIL is the largest and the oldest of the 4 licensed credit information companies). It is a popular misperception that lenders share repayment data only about customers who default on loans.

They are required to share data about the repayment of all their borrowers. So anybody who has taken in a loan (and that includes me as well) and is currently servicing it will find his or her name in CIBIL. But for most of us this is extremely useful. If I were in the market for a new loan now the banks will be happy to lend to me at good rates simply because they will discover that my existing loan repayments have been bang on time and the level of indebtedness is very reasonable. The issue of course arises if my credit information report shows defaults (current or past).

This credit report has special significance in today’s life (obviously after our school’s report card) as it determines the credit worthiness of any individual. The need for credit is important aspect of modern day life, which one can hardly do without. The day is not far when matrimonial alliances will be based on the credit reports of bride and the groom’so till death do us apart will probably be replaced by ’till finances do us apart.

So if you have defaulted on your payments for any reason, your Credit information report will immediately disclose this status to any prospective lender. With a bad credit report it is highly unlikely that you can get any loan or credit card from any bank.

But all is not lostyou can slowly and gradually build your credit history all over again.

Now that you have been reported a defaulter, and you are burdened with debt, then what should you do? The help comes in the form of specialized credit counseling agencies who can assist you in such a situation. The well-known ones are ICICI initiated venture Disha Trust (www.dishafc.org) or Bank of India initiated Abhay Credit Counselling (www. abhaycreditcounselling.com) which assists you in negotiating with your existing lenders and re-structuring your debt, which can be curative and preventive both.

The customized advise given by Disha Trust is absolutely free irrespective of the bank the customer has a defaulted with and not just ICICI bank, shared Ms. Nutan Lugani – Counselor of Dish Trust. She adds, We hold extensive counseling sessions with the customers then work out an action plan and accordingly make recommendation to the banks.

It is not mandatory for the bank to consider them but it is a win win situation for both, the bank and the customers. With restructuring or rescheduling of loans, banks recover their money without incurring costs of litigation etc. and customer gradually comes out of debt.

So all is not lost. If you are considering obtaining a loan in future with low interest rates, you must have a healthy credit score. Worrying too much about your bad credit history is not going to help, but doing the right things will certainly help, adds Ms. Lugani.

First start with paying off the re-structured debts and start the process of rebuilding your credit history. But remember, rebuilding your credit history is a slow process. It is a misperception that if you could somehow find the money and pay off all the debt now it will give you a clean slate. What the report will show is that you had defaulted in the past but that you cleared everything off at a particular point of time.

That coupled with some other steps should help you in slowly rebuilding your credit history. Ms. Lugani says, Customers should not be obsessed about CIBIL credit report. They should first think about the loan, which they have to repay, and the need of the hour is how to come out of it, CIBIL report is secondary. Once you regularly start paying your debts in time then with the passage of time your credit history will improve.

Remember CIBIL keeps your records for 7 years but displays the month-by-month repayment record only for the last 36 months. What it means is that if you start maintaining a clean history after re-structuring or paying off your loans than your credit history will start looking good after 3 years.

Of course CIBIL also computes a Credit score (the process is internal to CIBIL) for each individual, which probably is based on the entire 7 years data. However, currently only a few banks use the Credit score so it is your visible data for 3 years that has more relevance.

In the meantime you can also start adopting measures, which enable you to rebuild credit history like taking secured credit cards, which are given against the security of your Fixed Deposits. Your credit limit will probably be raised in future if you have shown good financial behavior. These credit cards may not be your dream cards, but they are often the best option you have since you are unlikely to be eligible for their regular credit cards.

You can also opt for secured personal loans where an asset is required as collateral. It normally involves bigger sums of money, moreover secured personal loans are preferred by the lenders due to the fact that they are secured against your assets such as jewelry, securities such as shares/mutual fund units, bonds, NSC, KVP, Life Insurance policies with high surrender value, etc. All these loans (with the sole exception of Loan against property which is unlikely to be available for somebody who has defaulted in the past) are available irrespective of your credit record.

Ms. Lugani concurs, Such customers should look at liquidating the existing liabilities by taking loan against some kind of security, whether it is of stocks and shares or gold, or consider borrowing from some rich relative who can give them at a much lower rate. But word of caution here is that check your expenses, do not increase your credit exposure and repay the present loan to salvage the situation immediately.

You should pay more than the minimum payments each month if you cannot afford to pay off the credit card fully. Loan, whether big or small needs to be serviced and repaid regularly and on time. Service these loans religiously and the new disciplined you will also reflect in your repayment history in CIBIL records. In fact after three years the remanents of your bad history will no longer be visible.

So remember slow and steady wins the race.

Next week I intend to cover how to get mistakes in your credit report corrected. I invite readers to share their experiences on this issue.