What is Debt Consolidation and What Are Your Options?

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Debt can be devastating. What began as small, manageable credit card debt or personal loans can quickly get out of hand if life throws you a curveball. From critical illnesses to family emergencies, unexpected bills or sudden cash flow shortages, it’s easy to find yourself underwater.

But it’s not all bad news — creditors increasingly realize the benefit in giving clients options to reduce debt and get back on track. Known collectively as debt consolidation, this framework includes multiple ways to address current debt load and create a road map to help rebuild credit and remove financial obstacles.

What is debt consolidation?

What is Debt Consolidation

Debt consolidation focuses on shifting, combining or better managing current financial liabilities to help clients get back on track and avoid the trap of minimum credit payments. In particular, debt consolidation strategies look for ways to move your debt to a more favorable interest environment — such as another credit card — or combine your outstanding balances by applying for a larger, lower-interest loan. If neither of these options is possible, you can also consider debt management through a reputable agency, which reaches out to creditors on your behalf and asks them to reduce your interest rate or waive certain fees.

Why is debt consolidation so important? If you’re using more than one high-interest credit card or have multiple high-interest loans, you may not be able to make the minimum payment each month, resulting in both an accruing balance and penalty interest.

Consider an example. While many credit cards have purchase APR in the 15% to 20% range, penalty interest applied to overdue payments is often closer to 30%. If you’re already in financial trouble with one credit card, then apply for another to cover the shortfall and still find yourself unable to pay, you can end up in a seemingly endless cycle where the payments you make don’t make a dent in the total balance. Debt consolidation is a way to avoid all of this and get back on your feet.

What are my options to pay off my debt?

The most important thing to remember when debt starts to pile up is that you have options. While it’s often difficult to talk about financial struggles or ask for help, there are now policies and procedures in place to help mitigate the impact of debt on your life and help define a clear path forward. While each debt is different, there are three broad strategies to help reduce your financial burden: balance transfer credit cards, a debt consolidation loan and debt management plans. Let’s examine each option in more detail:

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Balance transfer credit card

Most credit card companies offer balance transfer credit card options to help reduce your overall debt payments. These cards come with 0% intro APR on all balance transfers — debt moved from your existing card to the new card — for a specific period of time, typically between 12 and 18 months. During this time, you don’t pay any interest on the amount you’ve transferred; instead, you simply need to make your minimum payment. Without the burden penalty interest, many cardholders can start to get ahead of their debt — or even pay it off — before the introductory interest rate expires.

Debt consolidation loan

A debt consolidation loan allows you to combine existing debts into a single, larger loan that has a lower total interest rate. These loans may be offered by banks, credit unions or finance companies, and the terms vary depending on your current debt load, financial circumstances and existing cash flow. Since each of your existing creditors has their own fee structure and interest requirements, it’s not possible to directly combine your debts — consolidation requires a completely new loan which is then used to pay off each outstanding debt.

Debt management plan

Debt management plans help create a roadmap to reduce financial stress if you’re not eligible for balance transfer credit cards or debt consolidation loans. Offered by credit counseling agencies, debt management plans involve going to each creditor individually and asking for more favorable loan terms. You make a single monthly payment to your debt management agency, which in turn disburses the money among creditors and ensures you don’t default on specific loans.

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Consider this

While each of these debt consolidation options comes with potential benefits to improve your financial footing, it’s worth looking out for pitfalls that may trip you up.

When it comes to balance transfer credit cards, for example, make sure you read the fine print. Know exactly when your interest-free period ends and know the penalties for missing a minimum payment, which can include substantial interest applied to your entire debt.

If you’re applying for a debt consolidation loan, start with some online research. While many new lenders offer substantial loan amounts, they may also assess large fees at the start of your loan term or carry penalties if your debt isn’t paid off within a specific time frame.

For debt management plans, make sure you’re dealing with a reputable credit management agency. If terms seem too good to be true — such as zero interest on large debts or no timeline for complete loan discharge — the agency may not be reliable. Even if they’re taking your money for themselves instead of sending it to creditors, you’re still responsible for your debt, so it’s important to choose carefully.

None of these plans will work if your spending habits don’t change. If you continue to accumulate debt faster than you can pay it off —  even with a balance transfer card or loan — these strategies will only buy you time instead of permanently solving the problem.

The bottom line

Debt is difficult, but it doesn’t have to be the end of your financial future. With the right debt consolidation and payoff strategies in place, you can take back control of your spending and have a fresh financial start.

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