In my post of 2 Feb 2011 (“Is there life after bankruptcy?”) I quoted an article from “Moneywise” magazine (Jan 2011), containing a useful summary of the danger signs that debts might be running out of control. The last item on that list of danger signs is the one I want to go back to today:

  • If you are not opening bills and are screening calls from creditors, seek advice. Ignoring payments will not make them go away and the problem will only get worse.

Firstly, I agree totally about seeking advice if any of those five signs fits your situation. And yes, I agree totally that ignoring payments – ignoring the situation in general – will make the problem get worse.

Not opening bills? Ten years ago, I was “guilty as charged” on that score. I know from bitter experience that mounting interest charges, penalty charges etc can result. Luckily I didn’t get to the point of being taken to court, despite many threats.

Incoming phone calls

However, it’s the question of incoming phone calls I want to talk about here. Yes, the fact that you feel you need to screen phone calls is one sign that you’re worried about your debts.

However, there is a case for letting your answering machine take those calls, subject to one important condition: that you take note of any messages left by your creditors and you respond to them in writing.

In my book “Back to the Black” I deal with incoming calls as follows:


In order to create space between you and your creditors, I recommend that you conduct your negotiations in writing only. There are all kinds of benefits here:

  • You have time to think before responding.

  • It will look professional; if you are not good at composing letters, there are some examples in the “resources” section, which you can adapt to fit your situation; or you can get an adviser to help.

  • You have a record of everything that has been said by both parties.

  • … and most importantly, it is less stressful.

“Let the answering machine take the strain”.

Follow this strategy, summon up your reserves of patience and persistence, and the huge benefit is that you avoid verbal discussions. They are just too stressful right now and, thanks to that wonderful invention the telephone answering machine, you need never speak to a creditor in person.

When I say this, I am not advocating that you ignore telephone calls. No, you should respond if a creditor leaves a message but you do it in writing, referring to any previous correspondence and repeating your previous offer, if you have made one, or perhaps making an offer, if you have not done so. Alternatively you could simply state your position and ask for their understanding and for more time.

One slight disadvantage of the telephone “bubble” concept (Seve Ballesteros again) could be that your friends might notice that you are never in, even when they expected you to be so. Is that a major problem? Probably not. If you have an actual answering machine, rather than the service from your telephone provider, then you can use it to filter your calls, by listening to the machine before deciding whether to pick up. If you have “caller display” on your home phone, or you are being called on a mobile, problem solved: you can be 100% selective about which calls you accept and which you allow to go through to voicemail.

Now I do recognise that there are some people who simply cannot resist answering a ringing phone. If you are one of those people and you can’t break the habit, then all I can say is that I hope you are someone who is not stressed out by this kind of situation, in which case you are in the lucky minority. In such a case, carry on following your instincts and answer the phone, but I would still urge you not to conduct a negotiation on the phone. Simply take in what is said and offer to think it over and reply – but in writing.

Always respond both to written correspondence and to phone messages and do so Promptly, Politely, Professionally – and Persistently (i.e. sticking to your guns). In the resources section at the end of the book there are some examples of letter formats you could customise



I hope that the above is of help. If you need more info (for example if you want to know why I refer to Seve Ballesteros!), get in touch or read my book.


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