By Andrew Housser
Over the last few months, some economists have started to see a brighter picture ahead, with housing prices improving slightly and U.S. unemployment showing gradual improvement. Yet for many people, the last few years have brought major financial challenges. In addition to the challenges of the economy, some people have had to face financial disasters that destroyed their security.
In 2010, there were nearly 500,000 structure fires in the U.S.; suffering through one of them could result in lost property and health problems, not to mention the inconvenience of a forced relocation, either temporarily or permanently. In 2011, the U.S. alone suffered 98 natural disasters that caused $27 billion in losses -- and left thousands of people without homes, and in some cases without livelihoods. Medical bills are estimated to cause more than 60 percent of bankruptcy filings. And any of these situations could cause the loss of a job, marital stress, and a massive increase in debt.
It is difficult to bounce back from a disaster, but it is possible. If you or someone you know is struggling to recover from a serious financial setback, these steps can help to regain a stronger financial footing.
1) Find stability first.
It is most important to find stability after a disaster. You must be sure you and your family have a safe place to stay, and secure other basics such as food and clothing. Seek out affordable shelter, even if it might mean relocating or staying with friends and family. Immediately stop all extraneous expenses, such as cable television, extra vehicles, children's activity expenses, etc.
2) Get help to meet the basics.
Depending what kind of situation you have experienced, different types of help might be available. The Red Cross can help secure housing and clothing after a natural disaster. Your community or other nonprofit organizations might have resources for medical care or counseling at low or no cost. If you have lost your job and are deeply in debt, find out if you qualify for assistance with food stamps and public health insurance. Inquire about other help from local food banks, shelters and religious organizations. It can be difficult to accept this kind of help, but if you are deeply in need, it is designed to help you.
3) Deal with your creditors.
A first step to take is to let creditors know what you are going through. In some cases, if you have a good credit history, they might be willing to defer payment or accept partial payment while you get back on your feet. If you cannot make even the minimum payment, or if you have so much debt that you cannot pay it, consider getting help. Investigate your different options, including consumer credit advocacy or debt settlement, a debt management plan, or even bankruptcy, to see which option might work for you. Meanwhile, stop using credit and live within your means, no matter how difficult it is.
4) Keep good records.
Any time you are managing a financial crisis, keep good records of every action you take and every communication you have, whether with a medical provider, an insurance adjustor or a government agency. In the aftermath of a natural disaster, fire or similar destruction, take photos of the damage and keep items you are filing claims for until an insurance adjuster confirms you can get rid of them. Keep copies of letters you send, and request delivery confirmation for anything you mail.
5) Build an emergency fund.
As long as you are able to continue working and are bringing in a paycheck, set aside a portion of your income every month in savings.
6) Rebuild your credit.
One day, you will want to buy a home, a car or return to school. Each of these situations may require a decent credit score. If your good credit has been destroyed, know that you can take steps to regain a better credit score. First, pay all your bills on time. Establish a budget, and within that, work to pay down debt as quickly you can. Leave as much room on credit cards as possible, but do use credit when trying to rebuild -- credit agencies rely on past payment history to gauge how borrowers will do in the future. Think twice about canceling a credit card with a long (positive) history, as the longer you hold a card, the more valuable it is in your credit score determination.
If necessary, a secured credit card can be helpful to some people whose credit was wiped out because of a disaster. With this type of card, the borrower must provide a deposit to open the account. Then the lender applies credit card charges against the deposit.
Each of these steps can take some time. The important thing is to take them, be consistent and do not give up. Every day of forward movement will bring you closer to recovering from a disaster, and in time you will regain your security.