Surviving the Holidays in Chapter 13 Bankruptcy

Person in a Santa suit putting money into a piggy bank

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The holidays can be a challenge for families even under the best of circumstances. How much should we spend on the kids? Do we have the resources? Should we use credit cards? 

How does a family cope when they're in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy case? Do you have to give up celebrating for five years? Not at all, but it will take some awareness and planning. Here are some things to think about. 

How Much Do We Spend on Holidays?

Christmas isn't the only end-of-the-year event that costs money. It comes on the heels of the back-to-school push with supplies, books, fees, and clothing. Then there's Halloween with parties, costumes, and candy. Even Thanksgiving can take a chunk of change. Then comes Christmas—toys for the kids and gifts for adult family members, co-workers, friends and service providers. There are parties, food, dress-up clothing, travel, and charitable giving.

A common suggestion is that you spend no more than 1.5 to 2 percent of your gross income on all things associated with the holidays. For a family with an income of $40,000, that comes out to $600 to $800. You’ll spend $1,125 to $1,500 if your family earns $75,000. 

Restrictions in Chapter 13 Bankruptcies

If Christmas is a financial disaster for most families, it can seem like a mission impossible for parents involved in a Chapter 13 case. Chapter 13 repayment plans are required to last from three-to-five years. Payments are made on a monthly basis.

A number of circumstances and considerations play into the calculation of the plan payment, but one of the most important is the debtor’s disposable income. You must disclose your income to the bankruptcy court, including any bonuses, part-time work, Social Security, unemployment, income from a business, and interest on savings and investments you might receive. You must also disclose all your expenses. Disposable income is the money you have—or should have—left unspent at the end of the month after you've met all your reasonable and necessary expenses.

Ideally, that disposable income could have been used for purchasing fun stuff, for giving gifts, for traveling or saving toward a large purchase. But purchases can be restricted in a Chapter 13 case because they're not considered reasonable or necessary. Your disposable income becomes your Chapter 13 plan payment. The money goes to your creditors. 

Taking on New Debt in Chapter 13 

Another important requirement in Chapter 13 is that a debtor must refrain from taking on any new debt during the course of the plan. Remember that these plans can last from three-to-five years. Although many people go through life without using credit, going “cold turkey” when we file a Chapter 13 case is a difficult adjustment for most of us. 

Chapter 13 budgets are very tight by necessity and many debtors cannot get through an entire case without some assistance. For these contingencies, the bankruptcy code allows a debtor to take on debt if he has a really good reason and only with court permission. If your refrigerator gives up the ghost, you would probably be approved for a small loan to replace it. But you won’t be allowed to take out a payday loan to give your kid an Xbox for Christmas. 

This applies to credit cards as well. If a credit card lender failed to close your account when you filed for bankruptcy, this doesn't mean you're free to use it. Debit cards are fine, but you have to be careful about overdraft protection, which is technically an advance of credit.

5 Strategies for Financially Managing the Holidays

There may be ways to eke out some cash to fund Christmas without borrowing from the bank or a payday lender. You can try to save in small increments if you begin well ahead of the holiday. 

  • Some banks offer "Christmas clubs": These clubs require you to make small, regular deposits over a set period of time. 
  • Automatic savings programs: Another way to save in small pieces is to take advantage of your bank’s automatic savings or “round-up” program. You can set up an automatic savings plan that transfers a small amount every week or month into a segregated account. As little as $10 a week will provide you with a nice cushion of $520 after a year. 
  • Modify your payment plan: You may be able to modify your Chapter 13 payment plan to reduce your payments for a month or two so you can use the “saved” money to pay for Christmas expenses. But before you seriously consider this option, you need to know two things. First, your attorney will charge you several hundred dollars to prepare and file the modification request with the court. And second, since you’re paying a set amount over a set period in your repayment play, your payments will go up in the remaining months to make up the difference if you lower them for a couple of months, 
  • Borrow from your 401(k) plan: The least attractive option may be to borrow from your 401(k) plan. Your attorney will most likely have to file a motion with the court asking for permission to do this as well. If permission is granted, you'll have to set up a plan to repay the loan. 
  • Use your tax refund: We usually file our tax returns in the spring and our refund checks come a few weeks later. Some people put the money in the bank, but many consider it a bit of a windfall and may squander it. When you’re in a Chapter 13 case, this money is technically more disposable income. Your trustee can take it for the benefit of your creditors. On the other hand, many trustees understand that taking all of a refund is harsh. They may allow debtors to keep some of the money. If you're lucky and this happens to you, just make sure to save it until the holidays roll around.