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Debt Consolidation vs. Debt Settlement: Weigh Your Options
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If you’re like the average American, you’ve looked into ways to eliminate your debt once and for all. The good news is that there are a number of ways to do it. Below, we’ll explore two popular debt payoff strategies: debt consolidation and debt settlement.
Debt consolidation is a way to combine one or more debts and pay them off with a single monthly payment, ideally with more favorable terms. A debt settlement, on the other hand, is a way to renegotiate the terms of what you owe so a creditor is willing to accept less than what is owed. Each approach has its own benefits, as well as distinct drawbacks. With both strategies, you’ll need to do due diligence to make sure you’re not feeling the financial effects long after your debt is gone.
What is debt consolidation?
Debt consolidation involves taking out a new loan or line of credit to help pay off existing debt. It doesn’t actually reduce the amount of debt you owe. Instead, it can lower your monthly payment and save money on interest if your new loan or line of credit comes with a lower interest rate than the individual rates on your current debts.
Debt consolidation can streamline your finances by taking the confusion out of juggling multiple creditors and payments, various due dates and different terms. Plus, you can potentially shorten your repayment period and improve your credit score while repaying debt.
It does come with risks. For example, if you were to take out a home equity loan to help pay off credit card debt and use your house to secure the loan, you could lose your home if you were unable to make payments. Or, if you were to take out a personal loan and couldn’t repay it, you could see your credit score drop, in addition to paying fees and penalties.
Types of debt consolidation
- Home equity loan or home equity line of credit (HELOC): With a home equity loan, you can cash in on the equity in your home to pay off other debts, often at a lower (and fixed) interest rate than you’d get with credit cards or a personal loan. With a HELOC, you get access to a line of credit that can also be used to pay off debt, usually at a variable interest rate that might make monthly payments harder to budget.
- Cash-out refinance on your mortgage: This mortgage refinancing option lets you take out a new loan on your home that will both pay off the old loan with better terms and provide cash for other uses, like paying off debt. It typically carries a lower interest rate than a home equity loan, but the associated fees can add up.
- Debt consolidation with a personal loan: You won’t need collateral, like a house, to secure a personal loan to pay off debt. To qualify for the best interest rates, you will need strong credit, a reliable income and a low debt-to-income (DTI) ratio.
- Balance transfer credit card: A balance transfer lets you move existing credit card debt onto a new credit card that preferably has a better interest rate. To qualify, you’ll need good to excellent credit and a history of paying bills on time.
- 401(k) loan: You won’t need a credit check to take out a low-interest loan against the money you have in your 401(k) retirement account, but expect withdrawal and loan term limits.
Pros and cons of debt consolidation
You could pay your debt off faster with a payment plan
You may have to pay extra fees when taking on new debt
You could receive a lower interest rate on your debt
Debt consolidation doesn’t address underlying financial problems
You could improve your credit score as you pay off your debt more quickly
You may receive higher interest rates
What is debt settlement?
Debt settlement is a type of debt relief in which you either negotiate on your own to settle debt with your creditors — or work with a for-profit company that will attempt to do the same on your behalf. The goal is to get creditors to agree to settle accounts for less than what is owed, on the grounds that some payment is better than no payment at all.
Trying to settle debt on your own can be time-consuming, but it lets you bypass having to work with a debt settlement company, an option we don’t recommend. However, there’s no guarantee a creditor will settle.
The risks of debt settlement
- Your credit takes a hit. Because most debt settlement programs require you to stop making payments, your accounts could become severely past due and end up in collections. This could negatively impact your credit.
- Penalties, late fees and interest on your debts will continue to accrue. This can potentially increase the amount due for each debt.
- Fees are typically high. Debt settlement fees can be as high as 60% of the total debt enrolled in the program, but companies can also charge you a portion of that fee for debt that’s been settled.
- Forgiven debt may be taxable. If the debt settlement is successful, the amount of debt that is forgiven could be considered taxable income.
- There’s a high potential for scams. While some companies legitimately try to settle debts, the industry is fraught with predatory practices and scams, from promising specific results to charging fees upfront.
- You might have to pay more in the long run, even if your debt is settled. Once you add in additional charges, fees and tax implications, you could end up paying more than what you owed in the first place.
- There’s no guarantee it will work. Debt settlement companies are not required to guarantee success or specific results. If you drop out, your credit will see serious damage and debt collectors may still keep contacting you.
- The dropout rate is high. If you drop out, you are entitled to withdraw your payments (but not any paid fees) without penalty, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
Pros and cons of debt settlement
You may be able to reduce your overall debt
Debt settlement can hurt your credit score and make it harder to get credit in the near future
You may be able to avoid having to file for bankruptcy
Some debt settlement companies may charge you thousand of dollars in fees
You may be able to pay off your debt much sooner
Any debt that’s discharged may be taxed in the upcoming tax season
Debt consolidation vs. debt settlement: Which is better?
This will depend on your situation. For some consumers, debt consolidation is a better choice. It offers a streamlined approach to getting out of debt once and for all. However, it also requires good credit to receive your best loan terms, and the ability to keep up with payments. If you have an unmanageable amount of debt or know you’ll struggle to pay it off on your own, debt settlement might be worth considering, especially if you’re willing to try to negotiate with creditors on your own.
If you opt to work with a debt settlement company instead, you’ll see a few additional factors to consider in this list of debt relief pros and cons:
Debt consolidation vs. debt settlement
|Factors to consider||Debt consolidation||Debt settlement|
|Fees||With balance transfer credit cards, fees are usually 3%-5% of the transfer amount; personal loans can have origination fees between 1%-8%.||Fees can reach as high as 60% of the enrolled debt, plus enrollment and account maintenance fees.|
|Effect on credit||Expect an initial dip in your credit score when opening a new credit card or taking out a new loan.||Even if you had no late payments, settled accounts stay on your credit report for seven years.|
|Tax implications||Typically none, unless you use a 401(k) loan and fail to repay.||You may need to pay taxes on the forgiven portion of the debt.|
|How much debt gets repaid?||You could save on interest payments, but you’ll still have to repay the entire amount owed.||Expect to pay back 50% to 80% of the debt you owe.|
|Debt and credit requirements||For personal loans and balance transfer cards, expect the best terms to be reserved for excellent credit. For personal loans, lenders will also look at income.||Typically, no certain credit score is required.|
|Can I continue to use accounts after paying them off?||Yes.||No, the accounts will be closed.|
When you should choose Debt consolidation
If you anticipate being able to pay off your debt in a reasonable amount of time, consider debt consolidation. It’s also a better path if you care about preserving your credit score.
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When you should choose Debt settlement
Consider trying to settle your debt if you have an unmanageable amount of debt, are willing to risk your credit score and bankruptcy isn’t an option. If you decide to work with a settlement company, look for a reputable name and check its standing with local consumer protection agencies and your state attorney general’s office.
How do I consolidate my debt?
- Get your finances in order. Determine exactly how much debt you have and the repayment terms and interest rates on each amount; also check your credit score. To find ways to consolidate credit card debt, consider these options.
- Decide which method works best for your financial situation. If you have significant equity in your home, consolidating debt with a home equity loan or HELOC might offer a better interest rate than a balance transfer credit card. Or, if you have a small amount of debt you can pay off quickly, a balance transfer card may make more sense. If you have excellent credit, a personal loan might be a viable option for a longer repayment term.
- Shop around. With a balance transfer card, for example, you’ll need to compare interest rates as well as transfer fees. If a loan seems to make more sense, find lenders and see if you prequalify. Prequalification doesn’t hurt your credit but can give you an idea of the terms you’d qualify for.
- Compare offers and choose a creditor. Check fee structures, compare rates and terms to find a creditor that works for you.
- Make sure you have key documents, like proof of income, employment and debts. A formal application will require a hard credit check, which will result in a small ding to your credit.
- Wait for approval. If approved, you can use your new line of credit or loan to pay off your existing debt. If you’re denied, check in with the creditor to learn why you were denied so you can make changes to improve your credit for future applications.
How can I settle my debt?
- Do your homework. Look into settling debts with creditors on your own; it’s almost certainly less expensive than working with a debt settlement company. If you do go with a company, avoid working with any that guarantee specific results ahead of time or require payment upfront.
- Read the fine print. Debt settlement companies must disclose certain information, including the price and terms, how long it takes to get results and how much money you must save before an offer is made, according to the FTC.
- Ask questions. Make sure the fees are based on the amount of debt settled and not the amount of debt entered into the program.
- Get the terms of your agreement in writing. Fees, for example, may vary depending on how much debt you’ve enrolled and how much has been settled.
What are the alternatives to debt settlement and debt consolidation?
Debt management plan
A debt management plan involves working with a nonprofit credit counselor to pay off your debt, as well as learn about healthy financial habits.
Here’s how it works: You make a single monthly payment to a designated credit counselor, who then uses the money to pay your various creditors. The total amount you owe won’t be reduced, but your credit counselor will likely be able to negotiate down interest rates and fees.
Fees are typically around $20 to $75 per month. You may also have to pay an enrollment fee, which usually ranges from $30 to $50. Fees might be waived depending on your financial situation.
Debt snowball or avalanche
If you’d like to pay off your debt without the help of a third party, consider two popular debt payoff strategies: the debt snowball and the debt avalanche.
The debt snowball method involves organizing your debts and paying them off from smallest to largest balance. With this approach, you put extra payments toward your smallest debt, and pay the minimum amount toward the rest. As you pay off debt, the amount you free up “snowballs” into larger payments for the other debts.
The debt avalanche method, on the other hand, is amore financially sound path, as you save money by tackling your highest interest rate debts first. However, your highest interest rate debt might also be your largest balance. For this reason, many people prefer the debt snowball. The little “wins” that accompany paying off debts quickly can help you stay on track and motivated.
Bankruptcy should always be a last resort. But if it’s likely that debt settlement will lead you down that path anyway, preemptively filing for bankruptcy could save you time, money and stress.
With Chapter 7 bankruptcy, your assets are liquidated and most of your debts are forgiven. With Chapter 13 bankruptcy, you’re able to keep some of your assets (like your home) but you’re enrolled in a strict repayment plan that typically takes three to five years to complete.
While bankruptcy will wreak havoc on your credit for years to come, it’s often the only option for consumers with significant debt who are looking for a clean slate. Still, consider consulting a bankruptcy attorney or nonprofit credit counselor for advice before filing.
Debt consolidation vs. debt settlement: FAQ
Is it smart to settle or consolidate debt?
Whether you choose to pursue debt consolidation or debt settlement can depend on your financial situation. If you have a good credit score and are likely to be eligible for good interest rates and terms, debt consolidation may be right for you. If not, you could look into debt settlement.
Proceed with debt settlement with caution. Some companies charge sky-high fees and engage in predatory practices.
Is debt consolidation the same as debt settlement?
No. Debt consolidation involves rolling up multiple debts into a single line of credit, such as a personal loan or balance transfer credit card. Alternately, debt settlement involves working with your creditors to come to an agreement regarding your debt, typically with the goal of reducing it. You can do this on your own or through a debt settlement agency. Both are methods for borrowers who want to better manage their debt.
Does debt settlement affect my credit score?
Yes — debt settlement can negatively impact your credit score and show up on your credit report for up to seven years. This can make securing a form of credit in the near future challenging, but your credit score can eventually increase again.
Is it possible to negotiate a debt settlement on my own?
Yes — you can cut out the middleman by avoiding debt settlement companies and negotiating debt settlement with your creditors yourself. You’ll need to do your research and call your creditors to explain your financial situation and discuss how you can lower your payments to a manageable level. Keep in mind that your creditors are not obligated to negotiate with you. You’ll want to get any agreements you make in writing.