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Debt Consolidation vs. Bankruptcy: Which Is Right for You?
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If you’re struggling to manage your debts, you might be weighing your financial options. When it comes to debt consolidation versus bankruptcy, it’s crucial to understand the differences between these two approaches, as well as the pros and cons of each.
Debt consolidation involves taking out a new loan or line of credit to repay your debt under new, potentially more favorable terms. Bankruptcy, on the other hand, can wipe away or reduce your debt, but it will also damage your credit score for years to come.
What is debt consolidation? The basics
Debt consolidation is a process of paying off multiple debts from a variety of lenders with a single new loan or line of credit. Debt consolidation loans, a particular type of personal loan, are commonly used to consolidate debt, and they generally don’t require collateral. Ideally, the new debt will have a lower interest rate than the debts being consolidated under it, which can help lower your overall cost of repayment.
You don’t need a specific debt consolidation loan to consolidate debt. Here are some other common financial products you can use for this:
- Balance transfer card: This can be a good solution for consolidating revolving debt. With this method, you transfer all of your individual credit card balances to a new card with a lower interest rate or a no-interest introductory period. However, you’ll need to repay your balance in full during the introductory period (usually 12 to 21 months) to avoid being charged interest on your remaining balance.
- Secured personal loan: Some lenders offer personal loans that are secured by underlying collateral, such as existing certificates of deposit or savings account balances. These loans may offer lower interest rates than unsecured personal loans and be easier to qualify for, but they do put the collateral assets at risk if you fall behind on payments.
- Home equity loan: The difference between what your home is worth and what you owe on the mortgage is the home’s equity. You may be able to get a home equity loan for a portion of this amount and use it to pay down debt. This can secure you a lower interest rate on your debt, though it also puts your home at risk if you struggle to pay your bill.
- Home equity line of credit (HELOC). Like a home equity loan, a HELOC allows you to borrow against your home equity. But instead of borrowing a fixed amount in a single check, you get an open, revolving line of credit that you can access for a set period. HELOCs also have an adjustable interest rate; this can be dangerous in an environment where rates are rising, as your cost to borrow will likewise increase.
What is bankruptcy? The basics
Chapter 7 bankruptcy
Chapter 7 bankruptcy is a specific method of bankruptcy that results in a debtor’s nonexempt assets being sold to pay off existing debts. If there are no assets, or the asset value does not equal the total debt, it still clears the slate.
Chapter 13 bankruptcy
With Chapter 13 bankruptcy, the goal is to reorganize the debt through a three-to-five year payment plan. This results in reduced overall debt while allowing a borrower to retain ownership of assets. Chapter 13 bankruptcy can stay on credit reports for up to seven years.
Debt consolidation vs. bankruptcy: Pros and cons
While debt consolidation means combining your debts into a new loan with new repayment terms, bankruptcy involves discharging or reducing it so you no longer have to pay back some of it (or even all of it).
There are a few ways to consolidate debt: You could use a personal loan, balance transfer credit card or home equity loan, for example. Most debt consolidation strategies require that you have good credit to qualify.
Bankruptcy, on the other hand, is typically considered a last resort for consumers who don’t have the means to pay back their debts. While it can be a useful strategy in some circumstances, it can also cause long-lasting damage to your credit.
|Debt consolidation||Chapter 7 bankruptcy||Chapter 13 bankruptcy|
|How it works||Combines multiple debts with a single, new loan or line of credit||Court-supervised sale of a debtor’s assets to pay off existing debts||Court-approved, 3- to 5-year debt reorganization plan|
Consolidation loans are often unsecured
Process protects credit score
Can reduce overall interest paid
Reduces number of monthly payments
Removes all dischargeable debt without further payment
Can stop collections, foreclosures and garnishments
Often completed within months
Often reduces total debt balances
Shortens repayment term
Can stop collections, foreclosures and garnishments
Requires ongoing payments
Might not be a workable option for those with lower credit scores
Could require collateral
Negatively impacts credit (up to 10 years)
Must qualify through means testing
Nonexempt assets can be liquidated
Negatively impacts credit (up to 7 years)
Borrowers can’t exceed debt limits
Takes at least 3 years to pay off
Bankruptcy or debt consolidation: How each can affect your credit
Debt consolidation typically won’t impact your credit much. While you may need to go through a hard credit check for a debt consolidation loan, which can put a dent in your credit score, this is typically temporary. In fact, your credit score may even improve more quickly as you consolidate your debt and pay it off faster.
Bankruptcy, however, typically impacts your credit score negatively for a while. Chapter 7 bankruptcy usually stays on your credit score for about 10 years once you’ve filed, while Chapter 13 remains for 7 years. However, after your debts are discharged, you can start to rebuild your credit and bring it back up again.
Bankruptcy or debt consolidation: How to decide which is better
When determining whether to choose bankruptcy or debt consolidation, each borrower’s individual financial situation will be the dominating consideration. Some of the factors to consider include:
- Credit score: Individuals with a higher credit score can benefit from more competitive terms on a debt consolidation loan.
- Income predictability: Individuals with unpredictable income and potential for job loss might be better suited to Chapter 7 bankruptcy, if they qualify.
- Amount of debt: Consolidated debt must still be paid back, so if the debt burden is too high, then a Chapter 7 (wipes out dischargeable debt) or a Chapter 13 (reduces debt) filing might be better options.
- Overall financial health: Debt consolidation works well for those in stable financial situations. But if you’re buried in debt and can’t find any other reasonable path out, bankruptcy may be an option worth exploring.
Generally speaking, debt consolidation is a preferable option if you can qualify for a lower interest rate than you have currently on your debts, and if you expect your financial situation to improve in the future. If you’re not able to pay back your debt consolidation loan, it won’t help very much, and could even hurt your credit if you miss payments.
If you’re completely overwhelmed by debt and know that you wouldn’t have the means to pay back consolidated debt, it may be worth considering bankruptcy. However, the rules around bankruptcy are complicated, so consulting a lawyer or counselor before you make a move may be wise. Plus, it’s important to understand the long-term consequences of filing for bankruptcy before you commit.
When comparing debt consolidation versus bankruptcy, it’s also worth noting that these aren’t your only options for dealing with debt.
Other debt management options you may consider
Debt management options aren’t limited to debt consolidation and bankruptcy. Other steps you can take to manage your debt include:
- Debt management plan: A nonprofit debt management plan run by a credit counseling agency can give borrowers financial counseling and may help get their finance charges and fees reduced. Through this type of plan, the borrower makes a single payment each month to the agency, and the agency then makes payment directly to creditors. Note that these plans do come with additional fees.
- Debt settlement plan: Debt settlement companies are for-profit enterprises that claim to negotiate lower debt balances in exchange for lump-sum payments made by the borrowers. For this process to work, borrowers must generally remain delinquent with their creditors for a significant period of time and must have access to funds that can pay the lump-sum amount and settlement company fees. However, in addition to destroying your credit, there’s no guarantee that the settlement company will work out an affordable agreement with your creditors. (You can, however, attempt to settle on your own.)
- Creditor negotiation: In many cases, consumers can call their creditors and work out deals themselves to reduce outstanding balances, remove fees and even reduce interest amounts.
- Debt payoff planners: Budgeting programs and apps can help a borrower prioritize spending to ensure they pay off debt. When these are used to accelerate repayment terms, it also reduces the interest paid. Still, this option is only viable to those who have the income and ability to make extra payments or adjust payments.
Carrying debt for decades isn’t something most people look forward to. Either bankruptcy or debt consolidation could be a solution, depending on your debt, finances and objectives. If you are facing insurmountable debt, these additional strategies can also help.