Some credit card companies lure you in with a rate of 0 percent but raise it to 18 percent after the initial promotional period. Adjustable-rate mortgages that started at 2 percent or lower in 2005 have reset at much higher rates, sending thousands of people into foreclosure. And that private college loan that started at 10 percent? It could climb to 15 percent or higher if it's tied to an index that rises. The bottom line: If the interest rate isn't permanent, you could get taken for a ride.
Do: Stick with a 30-year fixed-rate home mortgage...
...(average is currently 5 percent), avoid credit card promotions altogether, and, as much as possible, steer clear of private college loans—again, Stafford and PLUS loans are the way to go.
Don't: Transfer balances.
A few years ago, transferring your debt to a card with lower rates would have been a no-brainer, as many card issuers charged a maximum balance transfer fee of $50 to $75. But today companies often charge a percentage of your entire balance—usually between 3 and 5 percent (and a 3 percent fee on a $5,000 transfer is $150).
Do: Try to find a no-fee transfer deal at CreditCardConnection.org.
And if you are considering a deal that charges fees, use the calculator at CreditCards.com to determine whether you'll come out ahead.
Don't: Use a debt settlement firm.
Those TV ads that promise to negotiate a deal with your creditors so you pay only a fraction of the bill can be enticing—but you should change the channel, and quick. According to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, debt settlement firms typically charge fees between 13 and 20 percent of your total debt, or a cut of the total debt reduction plus a hefty monthly fee of $50 or more. Not to mention that many of these companies are far from squeaky-clean—several simply collect your fees without doing much at all to improve your situation, and the Federal Trade Commission has numerous cases pending against the worst offenders. Furthermore, even if you are able to negotiate a lower payment, you will likely owe federal tax on the amount forgiven (the IRS considers it income), and a settlement will hurt your credit score.
Do: The negotiating for yourself.
If you're unable to make your payments, call your creditors. They would rather get something than nothing from you, and they're just as willing to deal with you as they are with a debt settlement company. Asking to settle your bill for less than the full balance will work only if you have enough funds to make a lump-sum offer—you'll need to bring cash to the table. And remember that if they accept, there could still be a tax bill coming your way.
More: 3 offers that are worth their weight in gold
Suze Orman's most recent book is her Action Plan: New Rules for New Times (Spiegel & Grau). Ask Suze your question