October 2001 // Volume 39 // Number 5 // Tools of the Trade // 5TOT1

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In Over Your Head: A Tool for Agents Working with Clients in Financial Crisis

In Over Your Head . . . Life-Saving Strategies for Financial Crisisis a publication written by four Ohio Extension agents. The group completed a survey of 60 bankruptcy filers to investigate how Extension could best address some of their educational needs. This article addresses the content of the resulting (budgeting) teaching tool and describes how it was designed and organized to lead clientele through the advantages and disadvantages of five strategies. The article reports how the publication was initially distributed and evaluated by Ohio agents.

Diane E. Johnson
Extension Agent, Family & Consumer Sciences
Greenville, Ohio
Internet Address: johnson.8@osu.edu

Christine F. Olinsky
Extension Agent, Family & Consumer Sciences
Dayton, Ohio

Jean Clements
Extension Agent, Family & Consumer Sciences
Xenia, Ohio

Kathy Michelich
Extension Agent, Family & Consumer Sciences
Lebanon, Ohio

Ohio State University Extension


In the 1990's, Americans saw both unprecedented prosperity and record increases in the number of personal bankruptcies. In 1997, in the Dayton Federal District Court of Ohio, the number of Chapter 7's (Personal Liquidation) filed rose 61%, from 12,756 cases in 1995 to 20,526 cases in 1997. The number of Chapter 13 bankruptcies (Wage Earner Plans) rose 37%, from 4,884 cases in 1995 to 6,708 cases in 1997.

The authors, Family and Consumer Sciences Extension agents in southwest Ohio, noted this trend and began to investigate ways they, as educators, could assist families in financial crisis. The agents studied 60 bankruptcy filers. They looked at a wide array of demographic and attitudinal data.

Among other characteristics of the filers, the agents found that 95%p had completed high school or higher levels of education, 84% were employed and 86% of those who worked did so full time. These findings led the agents to create a publication designed to reach individuals at the work site or to reach individuals who contact Extension agents seeking information and assistance. These individuals, in the midst of financial crisis and faced with collection calls and difficulty paying bills, may panic and head for bankruptcy without knowledge of other options. The four agents felt that people equipped with knowledge of several strategies could make better choices. The result is In Over Your Head . . . Life-Saving Strategies for Financial Crisis, a 36-page publication that offers five basic strategies and a variety of self-help ideas for the reader.

Five Strategies in Six Sections

  1. Section One begins with a self-assessment. Ten questions help the reader focus on specific problem issues. The reader can immediately follow 12 action steps needed before making decisions or before he or she can gain financial control.

  2. Section Two deals with collectors--what to do when they call and how to handle abusiveness. The text leads the reader through what collectors can and cannot do under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. It then outlines how to stop harassment.

  3. Section Three outlines 10 steps to develop a self-directed debt payment plan. There are specific examples of a downsized budget. This section helps the reader set priorities for which bills or creditors to pay first and which ones are not as important to family survival. The reader is also introduced to the concept of "power payments" as a strategy for paying down debt over time.

  4. Section Four introduces the possibility of credit counseling with or without a debt management program. The text describes what to expect from counseling services, how to find a reliable agency and what the long-term consequences may be.

  5. Section Five outlines debt consolidation and other options for borrowing to make payments. Options described include loans from family and friends, life insurance, retirement accounts, pawnshops, home-equity loans and consumer finance companies.

  6. Section Six describes the two types of bankruptcy options available to most people: Chapter 13 and Chapter 7. The reader is led through an examination of whether this option is the right one for him and the circumstances when bankruptcy might be the best choice. (The agents felt this was important because sometimes credit counseling agencies do not recommend bankruptcy when it would be the best option, and attorneys sometimes do not suggest a debt management program with a credit counselor when it might be a better option.)

The design and layout of the publication feature icons and boxed text that direct the reader to the advantages and disadvantages of each strategy. Icons also lead the reader's eye to important blocks of information for particular emphasis, such as how and where to get a credit report.

There are sample letters that the reader can use "as is" or can adapt to his or her own situation. There are templates for the downsized budget, a "know what you owe" template that can be used to get all creditor information organized in one place, a sample "cease" letter that can be used to stop collector harassment, and a letter for ordering a credit report.


Five thousand copies of this publication were printed in February 2001. One thousand-five hundred were distributed to agents across Ohio. The remaining 3,500 copies continue to be distributed by the authors to employers, banks, credit unions, attorneys, and consumers in their counties.


In May 2001, Ohio agents were surveyed regarding their use and perception of the bulletin. Twenty-one agents responded that they were either using or planned to use the booklet in their county programs. They rated the materials based on seven variables, with 1 = poor and 5=excellent. The results appear in Table 1.

Table 1
Ohio Extension Agents' Use and Perception of In Over Your Head . . . Life-Saving Strategies for Financial Crisis

Table One: Evaluation Question Mean Ratings

Written comments showed that Ohio agents found the booklet to be comprehensive, well designed, and well written. They appreciated that the information was in one package and well referenced. They also found that this material was particularly suited to self-study by individuals who are too busy and/or too embarrassed to go to a class.

This publication addresses a need that Family and Consumer Sciences agents have for practical and understandable information they can provide for consumers in financial crisis. To obtain a copy of In Over Your Head, contact the author of the article. Postage is $1.50 per bulletin.