How to Clean Up Your Own Credit File

A. Sarnoff
In 1995 I was saddled with my own debt AND debt that wasn't mine - stolen info, fraud, etc.  In 1997 I read a book that taught me how to clean up my credit.  I did what the book said, and, at the same time, I paid off my OWN stupid debt!   It took me two years.  In 1999 I bought my first home.  In 2014 I became 100% debt-free.  You can do it, too!  One year from now you will wish you began TODAY!  So do it!

The first step, of course, is to begin paying all your debts on time.  That is so important!  Use a bills calendar.  Credit reports reflect late payments.  Next, consolidate your debts yourself, if you can find a 0% or lower rate card than what you currently have. You'll have to be careful about transfer fees.  But better than that, pay off the small debts, then roll that payment into the next largest debt.  This is called "snowballing" your debt by Dave Ramsey, or "rapid debt repayment" by Mary Hunt (love her calculator on her website).  Then, of course, cut up your cards, but don't close any accounts until things are under control.  Click on my posts for Living on One Income and you will see all about how to do this.

Have you ever received a letter denying you credit?  If so, there are a few things you can do on your own to help clean up your own credit file, especially if the negatives on your report are not really yours.  Don't pay anyone to do this for you.  Only you can do it. 

Start by visiting www.annualcreditreport.com.  This is the correct site.  Don't go to another.  Request your information from just ONE of the three reporting agencies.  Put on your calendar to do the next agency in four months, and the final agency four months after that.  Then do it again the following year until your credit is satisfactory.

1)  Go through your report and list all the wrong items:
            Misspelled names, work names, street names. 
            If an address was transposed, such as 4107 Main and 4170 Main Street, put in your letter:  "This was obviously a transposition of numbers on the reporter's part, and is causing confusion.  Please delete the incorrect address of 4170.  The correct address is 4107 Main Street."

Ask them to delete information (list it) that is negative and is over 7 years old (10 years for bankruptcies). 

2)  If something is wrong, say so in your PAPER letter to the credit reporting agency.  For example:  "I've never heard of this company.  This isn't my account.  I have never done business with them."  (Especially happens when your name is common - we once had a neighbor with the same name!)

If a relative's debt shows on your report - that may be good IF their credit is good.  For instance, when I was starting life I got myself into stupid credit debt.  But my parents' credit was showing on my file, and they paid everything on time.  This helped me!  But if they were behind, then I would have asked to have their accounts deleted from my report.

3)  If something is listed twice, say so!  "Why is this debt listed twice?  As LA12345 and just 12345?  Please delete as it appears that I have two debts.  Thank you."

4)  You can dispute inaccurate information.  The credit reporting agency (CRA) will do an investigation and give you a written report.  If an item was paid and it doesn't show, tell them:  "I have proof that this was paid 10/2016 (copy attached)."  OR  "This account was settled.  Please delete."  OR  "This was paid by a settlement agreement in 2015."  OR  "This was paid to another collection agency in 2012."  OR  "This was dismissed in 2009. Please delete."  OR  "The wording is wrong on my XYZ card acct #54321 - it should say 'Paid satisfactorily' or 'paid as agreed.'  Please report it correctly.  Thank you."

5)  Once you've made your case, mail off your letter and wait for a response (usually within 30 days).  When you receive your new report, if there are still items you want to see removed, you can send another request.  Just ask to have it removed - especially if it isn't your debt and is fraud!

Years ago someone in the duplex behind me ordered a pager in my name.  He didn't work and waited for delivery.  He signed my name!  I obviously disputed with the debt collector.  They said, "Sorry, we have proof of delivery" and sent me a copy.  I didn't let it go.  I wrote back that I refused to pay for something I neither ordered nor received and told them what I believed happened.  They sent an affidavit to have notarized, which I did, and it was removed from my files.

6)  If the CRA's investigation doesn’t resolve your dispute, you can probably add a brief statement to your file, explaining your side.  Of course, if all the debts really are yours, you are simply going to have to pay the consequence of waiting 7 years and begin good credit habits today.  But you can change your report to reflect "Paid by agreement" (as in you negotiated a payoff with the debt collector, even if it wasn't for the full amount) instead of "Delinquent."  It's up to you!  Mary Hunt paid back over $100,000 to her creditors!

7)  If, at the end of a year, you have one CRA reporting that is more accurate than the others, you can actually contact the other two companies to put a note in your file that says something like, "This CRA (name it) is not maintaining reasonable procedures to maintain maximum accuracy in the reports it keeps on me.  This report is inaccurate and shouldn't be given credence. Please contact this CRA (name the good one) for an accurate report."  I never had to do that, as I was able to clean up my reports on my own, just by writing letters and keeping on top of things.

8)  Keep track of when negative credit is to fall off your report.  Put it on your calendar.  When your next free report is available, make sure it has been removed.  Follow up and ask them to remove it!  "Seven years has passed.  Please delete this debt."

8)  If you keep disputing a debt and they cannot verify it, or drop the ball in verifying it, it can be dropped from your report.  This takes DILIGENCE on your part.  You must respond immediately to their letters.  Don't be frightened.  It is personal on your part, but not on theirs.  Only you can protect your own credit.  Be ready to FIGHT, but be nice.  Fight as in don't give up and get scared.  You do this when someone, an old roommate or an ex, takes advantage of your good name and opens a catalogue account or other credit card and never paid the bills.  Clear your name!  Don't give up!  It can be done!

In 1997, I went to an urgent care clinic, and at the end they presented me with the bill, which I paid in full.  Days later I received an exorbitant bill!  The fire in me was ignited.  I wasn't going to pay one more penny that I didn't owe - and I haven't.  I called up the clinic and said, "You presented me with a bill, and I paid it in full.  You can't just suddenly decide I owe more!"  The woman actually laughed, and said, "You're right!  We can't.  I see that you did pay the bill we gave you.  If it was incorrect, that's our problem.  We can't bill you more after the fact."  

That positive outcome gave me more courage to speak up.  I went to the mall and bought an outfit.  I decided to splurge on the matching purse and jewelry after carefully considering the prices and my finances.  When I got to the cash register, all went well until the purse was rung up.  It was three times as much!  I said, "But the price tag says $13."  She replied, "The price tag was mis-marked." !!!  I told her that she could not raise prices on tags at the cash register, mis-marked or not!  The woman behind me spoke up, "That's correct.  That's the law."  Now normally I would have put the purse back.  But the fire had been ignited in me.  I don't let people walk all over me anymore!

A. Sarnoff
I lamented to someone, "Every month I seem to have a financial catastrophe.  A bill I don't expect always comes my way" and related the above.  He replied, "Janine, that is life.  You should expect a problem like that to come your way every day.  And when it doesn't - rejoice!"  His comment actually changed my mindset from martyr to rejoicer!  I was feeling like I was the only one this was happening to.  But it happens to everyone.  And when you have good days without financial woe - REJOICE!
Disclaimer:  I majored in Consumer Economics, and as part of my classes I helped counsel people considering bankruptcy.  This was two decades ago, and this post cannot be considered legal information.  You need to consult your attorney if you are considering bankruptcy. 


The Perfect Year, Area #4: Serene Spaces (Choosing a life of Peacefulness)

1.  Practice silence in the car.  Turn off that radio.  Or have a child read out loud.  Or get books on tape.  Adventures in Odyssey! Or old radio shows.  Silence helps your children to talk to you, and if alone, for you to think deeply.  Or introduce your child to one classical piece of music each day.  It always grows on the child.  It's brain food.  It's also calming.  And they will begin to recognize it all over the place.  Learn together.  My favorite: Pachelbel's Canon in D. 

2.  At home - turn off the TV.  Turn off the music.  What do you hear?  "Be still and know that I am God."  When was the last time you were still?

3.  Practice Peace.  A quieter home - just people living, candles (real or battery).  Listen to the quiet sounds of home.  Choose family books to read aloud.  Begin with a Children's Bible storybook, such as The Rhyming Bible for little ones, or Uncle Arthur's Bible Story set.  It's the best!  He also has a set of "Bedtime Stories" and a set called "The Children's Hour."  More on this in Life - In Order.       

We are currently reading "Rabbit Hill".  Almost any "old" Weekly Reader book - from the 50's and 60's - will be excellent for family read alouds.  Carolyn Haywood books are perfect for ages 4-9. Most Catherine Woolley "Ginny" books are great for girls 4th grade+ - they are in reprint (loved all except "Mysterious Light").  Try the "Mad Scientists Club" books - they are in reprint in 2 volumes. Boys will love, and many girls, too.  "Meet the Austins" and the 2 Christmas prequels are fantastic for 11+, but the sequels are terrible.  Classic books are typically for the older child.  Try booklists from Heart of Dakota. She's done a fantastic job of compiling the classics and the correct age group (unlike others).

4.  Buy a swing this summer.  A big one that you can cuddle your family on, and also lay down on.  It's a great way to read together and play verbal games outside, like trivia games, or 20 questions.  Start saving now from your grocery money!

5.  This week, practice praying with your family.  Out loud.  Bless them.  Ask God for healing and a peaceful home.  Pray for world events and peace. 

King Solomon, paraphrased, said:  Eat!  Drink!  Rejoice!  Sing!  Do good!  Love!  Live joyfully with your wife!  Do with your might what your hands find to do!  Praise the Lord!  Fear God!

6.  Take big breaths.  No need to empty your mind.  God said to fill it with Scripture.  No need for yoga to take big breaths.  No need to meditate. 

Philippians 4:8 New International Version (NIV) says: Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthythink about such things.  A good verse to post by the t.v.! 

Just turn down the noise, take big, refreshing breaths, pray, SMILE, SING a capella, dance with your babies, love on your hubby, and ENJOY THE MOMENT.  Then you will have a perfect year.


A Perfect Year, Area #3: Radiant Health

A. Sarnoff
Health has to do with food, water, sunshine, laughter, smiling, alcohol, drugs, smoking, love, sleep, stress, clutter, fat, exercise, soda, snacking, and work. 

We have a bigger say in our health than we care to admit.  Try one of these each week.

1.  Create a pantry.  Choose your largest cabinet.  Hire someone to put in shelves if you can't do it with wire risers from Big Lots or Bed Bath & Beyond.  You also need risers for cans, so that you can see them 3 or 4 deep.  Can be found at BBB or Home Goods.  Probably Container Store or online organization stores as well.  You need air-tight bins for flour and sugar and oatmeal or cereals.  Tape the directions, recipe, ingredients to the front and keep a measuring scoop inside if possible.  Label shelves if you can't see at a glance what is there. 

2.  Buy BAMBOO cutting boards.  You need 3 to 6 of them.  Toss your plastic boards. A University of Michigan study found that "those using wooden cutting boards in their home kitchens were less than half as likely as average to contract salmonellosis (odds ratio 0.42, 95% confidence interval 0.22-0.81), those using synthetic (plastic or glass) cutting boards were about twice as likely as average to contract salmonellosis (O.R. 1.99, C.I. 1.03-3.85); and the effect of cleaning the board regularly after preparing meat on it was not statistically significant (O.R. 1.20, C.I. 0.54-2.68). We know of no similar research that has been done anywhere, so we regard it as the best epidemiological evidence available to date that wooden cutting boards are not a hazard to human health, but plastic cutting boards may be."  Dean O. Cliver, Ph.D http://faculty.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/faculty/docliver/Research/cuttingboard.htm 

Bottom line is that germs die within 3 minutes on wood, and stay hours on plastic, even when washed in a dishwasher. 

3.  Make a money plan on grocery spending.  How much do you have to spend?  Save your receipts and total at month end.  I use a Ralph's visa card and only put groceries on it - from all grocery stores - to track my spending.  It's kinda shocking.

4.  Menu planning.  Use online menus from your favorite restaurants to meal plan.  Write it down on a 3x5 card or in a binder.  As you find a recipe, fill in the card with your notes - what pots to use, what side orders, what gets cooked first (like rice taking 45 minutes vs. 10 min beans).  Note how you changed a recipe, when you ate it, the reaction of family.

5.  If you want to add new foods, add it to your calendar.  Or make a rule, "At 10:30 each morning we will eat our fruit." Or celery. Or whatever you wish to add.

6.  Cut the crap.  This is the week to stop what ails you.  For me it was chocolates that caused heartburn, and juice that gave me a rash on my arm!

7.  Look through your books on diet or go to library.  I like Dr. MacDougall and Dr. Joel Fuhrman.  Find the foods that boost YOUR energy!

8.  Practice sitting at the table this week - for all your meals.  No more standing up!  Stand up meals cause weight gain.  Don't eat in your car this week (or ever).  Clear your table (my office!).  Set the table.  Teach your kids how to set the table.  Practice manners.  Practice moderation of food.

9.  What exercise did you like as a child?  What can you do with your child?  Ask him/her.  Depending on weather, can you walk or ride bikes to a park?  Drive to a new neighborhood with huge homes to walk?  Exercise together with videos?  Start slowly!  Don't overdo!  Choose 3 days, not every day.  Stretch like a cat in your bed before you get up.  Stretch and kick your legs.  Flex your feet.  Baby steps!  Begin with just 5 minutes a day!


A Perfect Year Area #2: A Home.

1.  Clear the clutter.  Begin with YOUR bedroom.  Then bathrooms.  Front room.  Kitchen.  Dining room.  Guest room.  Children's rooms.  Hall closets.  Front Door area and porch.  Garage.  Backyard and patio.

Try to finish in just one week.  If you can't, that's okay!  Just begin!  Make a plan.  It can be interchangeable.  Get some bags/boxes and put them into a closet and every item to be donated goes in. 

If you need inspiration, I've got it!  Read my posts on organization.

2.  Create a serene area to read, pray and encourage yourself.  It will have your prayers and your plans. 

3.  Do not subscribe to magazines.  They create discontent.  Instead, go to many different libraries over the year and check out books on decluttering, organizing, and making a house a home.  648.5 is the section in every library.  When you find pictures you like that are doable, snap a picture for inspiration.  But they must be doable - clean, clear, cozy spaces - not unaffordable additions.  And limit your internet time or pinterest time.  I had to not go there.

4.  Calendar your life - and try to "slow it down".   Take this year's calendar and transfer recurring items to the new year - on a PAPER calendar - the whole family must be able to see this calendar.  For me, all Mondays have a pink "-" in the middle, meaning don't schedule anything.  Mondays I stay home and clean (plus I homeschool every day).  On Tuesdays after school we visit family.  Thursdays we have park days and playdates.  Fridays consist of errands or visiting (all after school of course).

Each month I also have in the notes section who I should send cards to.  Some months have items such as these:  Pay taxes, income and property.  Buy socks.  Special library event.  Change a/c filter.  Phone charges may go up - try to renegotiate.  Annual curriculum sale.  Annual sale at store.  Go to special water park.  Phone minutes expire.  VBS begins.  Grandparents Day.  File homeschool affidavit.  Buy new calendar.  Living Nativity Pageant. 

This is how I remember everything.  I write it all down and transfer it from year to year.  (In my purse I keep a tiny notebook with restaurant food choices we liked/didn't like, items to remember, shoe sizes, where a store is located, etc.)   Another post on how to keep several calendars is here.

5.  Protect your sanity - create margin in your life and calendar.  It is RARE for me to do anything on a Monday.  I need that day at home.  It keeps me sane and on top of things.  It sets the tone of my whole week.  This past year we began school in early August so we could build more margin into a year.  A week off in October which is so busy with birthdays.  Five weeks off for Dec and January to have fun and not get stressed.  And a week off every six to eight weeks for the rest of the year so we don't get burned out on school and life.  How will you build margin into your life?


A Perfect Year, Area #1: An income.

We all need one.  If you are single, then it all falls on you.  But if your hubby is working, can you find a way to work less, and live on less?  The majority of people actually can, but won't.  That is up to you.  Where there is a will there is a way kind of thing. 

If you want to work, that is fine.  I'm not trying to get you to quit.  Just keep in mind that the "Research shows that women who work 41 to 50 hours a week are 1.6 times as likely to develop heart disease and 1.5 times as likely to get cancer compared to those who work 30-40 hours per week (averaged over a 32-year period).  The more hours you toil, the higher your risk."  Allard Dembe, Sc.D., Good Housekeeping, Jan 2017.

This is mainly because once you get home, your work doesn't end - it's just beginning.  So your life is nothing but work.  And I'm concerned about the women I see who work themselves to death.  End of speech.

So here goes:  Begin with where you are and budget.  It's a "money map" - where you WANT your money to go, and where it IS going.  So the food goal may be $400, but at the end of the month when you total receipts the actual may be $775. 

Then you keep adjusting it as you go each month.  Do you need to add more to food, or were you buying gift cards?  Are you budgeting for gifts?  Or eating out too much?  Or does miscellaneous keep going on the credit card?  What are you spending your money on?

What is the one thing you can't pass up?  Lipstick, shoes, candy, cute stuff? My son said for him it is stuffed animals.  For me, I used to say, "It's only $15."  ONLY?  When you identify YOUR "widget" then you can recognize that spending hole in your pocket. 

Put it on PAPER!  It's the only way to gain control.  And if you fill in boxes as you pay something (mine has the months of the year across the top on 4 sheets of paper), then when you wake up at 2:00 am wondering if you paid a bill, you can glance at your map and see that you did, because your chart was filled in.  I have the day paid, and the date due, next to my pymt amount.

Paycheck #1
Paycheck #2
Extra pyck
Tithe on extra
Automatic Savings
Automatic Savings
Cash for month
Lawn guy
Heat, trash, water
Phone and internet
Visa bill
Grocery store visa
Dept store visa
Home Goods visa
Prop Taxes
Dec & Feb
Life Ins due Jan
House Ins due April
Erthqke Ins Apr
Car Ins due July
Car Reg Dec/Jan

For me, "cash for month" includes a small amount of unbudgeted spending money for each of us, our gasoline money, haircuts, pizza, stamps/office supplies/misc money, all in their own envelopes to keep track of. 

If I'm out of gas money I'm done for the month.  If it is an emergency, it can come from an emergency stash we have hidden.  But I can't say yes to going across town for a playdate.  I'm out of gas and out of money.  The end.  No debt.  They can come to me, or they can understand.  I haven't lost a friend yet!

A. Sarnoff
Several years ago we needed a new roof, and $17k to pay for it.  The roof was leaking.  We put up tarps for years.  It took over one year of planning, repairing items, and selling items, to work and raise the money for this.  It took prayer and what felt like miraculous answers on what to sell to come up with this extra money.  But we did it - debt free!  The Lord led us with ideas, and doors closing and doors opening.  It was difficult.  But we did it!

I've written much on finances.  Many times it is easier to quit spending money than it is to bring in new money.  Remember, it is only for a season.  Try and find books from your library on how to make money.  I've read some excellent ones on how people survive without steady employment, and it all has to do with seeing opportunities and following through.  Working diligently and asking God for help and discernment. 

Again, you have to know what you WANT or you'll never get it.  I WANT a roof over my head that doesn't leak.  Start writing down the ideas on how to achieve that.  Start reading the money books.  Listen to Renee Ellison's CDs on money or get the written version.  Listen to or read Mary Hunt's books or website. 

How am I going to get out of debt?  Use Mary Hunt's Rapid Debt Repayment Program.  Subscribe to her website debtproofliving.com.  You can read all her newsletters.  Print them and read several a week until you change your mindset.

How do I change my thinking about money?  Try books or tapes such as "Your Money or Your Life" or "Automatic Millionnaire."

Here is the link to the 13 posts I've written about how to live on one income.  We have been 100% debt-free for several years now and I've written several times on what I did to become debt-free.  This is important!  Do it!  Only you can control your own finances!  God bless.


The Perfect Year

A. Sarnoff
The "Do It All Perfectly" Year.  Isn't that what we wish for every New Year's Eve?  Isn't that the phrase that gets us to buy magazines and say we need to get organized?  I just wish I could do it all... and perfectly.  

The word I kept hearing over and over in Christmas marketing this year was "Impress."  "Impress your friends and family with...."  Really?  That isn't what I choose for my life.

A. Sarnoff
I guess I felt the need to impress in my earlier years, but not now, because I learned the secret... no one wants to be impressed.  They just want to be comfortable in your presence.  They don't want their clothes, home, food, children's manners, etc. to be judged.  If you are living to impress others, then they aren't really your friends.  Find true ones! 

Now, what do you REALLY need in your life?  Please just quickly jot it down, right now.  Let's see if we come up with the same things.  If YOU actually do this, actually jot down on a piece of paper what you REALLY need, then it is more likely to take precedence over insanity.  Do you NEED to work 50-60 hours per week?  Do you need to drive your children to five events every week?  Do you need to eat every meal out?  Do you need to be in debt?  Does your home need to be messy, cluttered, dusty, and unlaundered?  Of course not.  What do you need?

This is what I need.

A roof over my head.  An income.  My family.  Health.  Food.  Water.  Sunshine.  Laughter.  Love.  Warm and cool clothes.  Peace.  Clean spaces.  Open spaces.  Green spaces.  Serene spaces.  Friends. An intimate walk with our Savior, Jesus.

Did I miss anything?

So all of these things really fall into just 4 areas:

1)  An income
2)  A home
3)  Radiant health
4)  Choosing peace

These four areas, I just realized, seem to be the message of my life when speaking with others.  When I'm with other women, those four topics come up repeatedly.  I studied them diligently for about ten years...read hundreds of books until I made up my mind how to live, and what is important to me.  

My next 4 Mondays will detail these 4 areas.  I'm calling it "A Perfect Year" only because that is what we wish for.   It will be "perfect" only because you are being conscious of where you are spending your time and money.  If you took these four areas and worked on them a month or quarter at a time, you would focus on what is truly important to you.  For some, that might be travel, and that isn't on my list.  But that could fall into any of those four categories. 

My posts are simply an encouraging jumping off point for you to plan your life instead of life just happening to you, and feeling out of control.  There are enough things that make us feel that way - especially a loved one's illness.  That throws our life into chaos.  So I'm hoping you will reflect, and dream, and put your goals on paper this week, the beginning of a new year (or any week you are reading this).  Because, truly, it really does make a difference.  You will do little things to help move you to a more serene and stress-free life.  God bless.