Renegotiating Debt: One Consumer at a Time
by Marguerite Rigoglioso
As alternatives to consumer bankruptcy dwindle, Brad Stroh and Andrew Housser offer a third-party alternative to those overburdened with personal debt.
You’ve lost your job, experienced a financially devastating divorce, or suffered a catastrophic illness that costs thousands of dollars not covered by your insurance. Whatever the impetus, you’ve plunged into the fiscal nightmare zone, broke and in debt big time, and you don’t know where to turn.
This scenario is becoming all too common for millions of Americans, many of whom are in hock up to their eyeballs even under the best of circumstances. And with the cost of living ever rising and recent laws making it harder for debtors to find relief (see sidebar), individuals who fall on hard times have fewer and fewer options available to them. Fortunately for some, a new company now helps people resolve their tax and mortgage debts, and debts not covered by collateral—including credit-card balances—in a way that puts the consumer first. Freedom Financial Network LLC, headquartered in San Mateo, Calif., and founded by Brad Stroh and Andrew Housser, both MBA ’02, helps individuals and families experiencing financial distress to reestablish their fiscal footing as quickly as possible.
“We don’t just consolidate loans and move debt around, as most advising agencies do,” Stroh explains. “Our business innovation is that we save consumers the maximum amount possible by negotiating with creditors to reduce the principal owed, and we’re paid by the consumer, not the creditor, which eliminates any conflict of interest.”
Freedom Financial says its model is a win-win-win for everybody: Consumers on average pay only 43 percent of what they owe; creditors recoup more than they would have if they had sold the delinquent loan to a third-party collection agency; and Freedom Financial earns commission based on what it saves the client. The company’s fee to clients varies, but is approximately a quarter of the amount of principal it manages to knock off. The firm says it has negotiated debt relief for more than 4,000 clients—who average $30,000 of debt each—over the last fiscal year. “We’re achieving client savings of about a million dollars per month,” Stroh says of his company, which enlists the help of 70 employees, including two other GSB alums (Jeffrey Staley, MBA ’02, and Louis Lipani, MBA ’04).
Stroh and Housser founded Freedom Financial in 2002 after working for years in the finance and investment industries. Noting rising consumer debt levels and the lack of adequate debt advisory services, the two perceived a business opportunity. Now, with consumer debt at an all-time high and relief options at an all-time low, the two have found more than a niche. “It’s great to be profitable and growing but still genuinely helping thousands of people,” Stroh says. For more information, visit freedomfinancialnetwork.com
New Laws Grapple with Consumer Credit Issues
New legislation making it much more difficult to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection—the filing that erases all debt—was to go into effect in October. Now filers must pass a stringent “means test” to prove they have no ability to repay. Many consequently will be forced to pay much or all of what they owe on a strict timeline rather than have their debts dissolved as in the past. A bankruptcy nevertheless will appear on their credit report.
“This will significantly extend the period of financial trauma for many Americans who turn to bankruptcy because they are truly in desperate situations,” comments Brad Stroh, co-CEO of Freedom Financial Network. The law also may put a damper on America’s entrepreneurial spirit. “Many small businesses are funded with people’s personal credit cards,” Stroh notes. “If there is no longer the safety valve of bankruptcy for failed ventures, people will be much less likely to take business risks in the future. Our entire economy could be negatively affected.”
But critics of existing bankruptcy laws say that bankruptcy abuse ultimately creates a burden for consumers, and that the current system in fact makes no distinction between the millionaire and the struggling family. Meanwhile, the government, nervous about the $10 trillion of consumer debt hovering over the nation, also has mandated a rise in minimum credit-card payments. That means by the end of this year, many people’s monthly credit-card payments could double to 4 percent of their outstanding balances. “Individuals scraping to make the monthly minimum will now be bumped into the financial hardship category,” Stroh says.
Adding to the one-two punch is a third hit: The federal government has shut down many debt-counseling and credit-counseling agencies posing as nonprofits because they are, in fact, outsource collectors making money from credit-card companies. “As imperfect as they are, they’ve been people’s main recourse for assistance with debt hardship,” Stroh says.
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