Whether you’ve maxed out all your credit cards, up to your neck in student loans or have a mountain of medical bills, it is smart to look for the best ways to consolidate your debt.
Debt consolidation – or the strategy of rolling many debts into one payment – can help you save money in interest, help you pay off debts quicker, simplify your finances and give you peace of mind.
The best choices include balance transfer credit cards, home equity loans or lines of credit, personal loans, peer-to-peer loans and debt management plans.
Learn the pros and cons of each choice to find the one that works best for your financial situation.
Balance transfer credit cards
Transferring your debts to one credit card could save you money in interest, especially if you’re paying off other, higher-rate credit cards. And you’re going to have just one monthly payment.
You’ll require a balance transfer card with a credit limit that is high enough to accommodate all of the balances you’re rolling over and an annual percentage rate (APR) low enough to make debt consolidation by credit card worthwhile.
Credit card debt is generally unsecured, so you won’t have to risk any resources, such as your home, as collateral. It is often quicker and easier to get a balance transfer credit card than it is a bank loan.
Beware of limitations and fees
Be sure to ask about the interest rate, balance transfer limitations and fees before applying. You won’t know the APR or credit limit until after approval.
Balance transfer cards tend to have a low introductory rate, often as low as 0%, that expires after a certain length of time. Your aim should be to pay off the balance before the introductory rate expires. If you are transferring $9,000 in debt to a card charging 0 percent for 18 months, for instance, try to discipline yourself to make a payment of, say, $500 a month so you pay off everything until your interest rate spikes.
Keep in mind that if you ask a credit-line growth or apply for a new credit card, the issuer will pull your credit history, which may reduce your credit rating.
Make a plan for your future
Using one card as the repository for all your credit card debt has risk, so be careful if this is the plan for debt consolidation. As soon as you’ve transferred debts to one credit card, concentrate on paying down that card as fast as possible. And try not to take on new debt.
Home equity loans
If you are a homeowner with strong credit and a strong financial history, tapping into your home equity might be a good debt consolidation choice for you. (Home equity is the difference between the appraised value of your house and any mortgage loan balance.)
Get lower rates and payments
Home equity loans have lower interest rates than credit cards, and tend to be larger than personal loans or credit card limits.
Home equity loans have longer repayment periods, which can mean lower monthly payments but also more interest over the life span of the loan, he says.
Home equity loans, however, can be risky as a process of debt consolidation. If you’re offering your house as collateral so as to repay unsecured credit card debt, you are trading the burden of card debt to the possibility of losing your home.
Home equity loans can come with variable rates of interest, which means the amount you pay on interest could rise or fall based on changing market conditions. So now’s affordable payment could be tomorrow’s debt disaster.
Additionally, it often takes longer to get a second mortgage a few weeks to a few months — because of the lengthy closing process, he adds.
Something else to consider before you use a HELOC to consolidate debt: The new federal tax law removes the tax deduction for interest you pay on a home equity loan unless you use the loan to construct or enhance your property.
Also called a”signature loan,” a private loan is an unsecured loan based on your creditworthiness. Loan amounts are determined by the borrower’s credit score and credit payment history, but personal loans typically top out at around $10,000, he says, although some banks will provide more sizable loans.
Banks and credit unions offer personal loans, but subprime lenders that lend to borrowers with poor credit scores, also are extremely active in the personal loans market. So it’s important to shop carefully and understand prices, terms and fees.
Subprime lenders are widely known for offering the highest interest rates and fees for loans, so it pays to consider other financing options first.
Even if you qualify for a loan by a prime lender but aren’t approved for their cheapest rate, the difference between that rate and one from a subprime lender could save you thousands of dollars and can make it much easier to make faster progress paying down your balance.
Because a private loan is unsecured, there are no assets at risk, which makes it a good option if you believe that your bank is the best alternative for a consolidation loan. However, be aware that a large, prime-rate loan requires good credit. And rates are typically higher for personal loans than they are for home equity loans.
Standard lending institutions aren’t the only solution for consumers seeking to consolidate debt.
Peer-to-peer lenders such as Upstart, Prosper and Peerform, pair borrowers and investors for unsecured loans that range from $25,000 to $50,000, depending on the platform and the borrower’s credit profile.
Good credit still counts
Borrowers with decent credit may find it easier to get financing at a P2P network than from a standard financial institution. But as with any loan, your credit score counts and the higher it is, the less interest you will pay.
By way of example, a three-year, $10,000 personal loan through Prosper for a borrower with an AA rating for”excellent credit” has an interest rate of 5.31 percent and a 2.41 percent origination fee, to get an APR of 6.95 percent, according to the Prosper site. But the high-risk borrower can expect to pay an APR up to 35.99 percent.
Debt management plan
If you would like debt consolidation options that don’t require taking out a loan or applying for a balance transfer credit card, a debt management plan could be appropriate for you.
With a debt management plan, you work with a nonprofit credit counseling agency to negotiate with lenders and draft a payoff plan. You close all credit card accounts and make one monthly payment to the agency, which pays the creditors. But you still receive all billing statements from your creditors, so it’s easy to track how fast your debt is being paid off.
Search for reduced interest rates
With a debt management program, you will find a few of the best debt consolidation loan rates (but not lower balances) and an end to over-limit and late fees.
To make a debt management program, stick with nonprofit agencies connected with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) or the Financial Counseling Association of America, and ensure your debt counselor is certified by Council on Accreditation (COA).
Consider the effect on your credit
While you’re on a debt management plan, you won’t be able to reach for credit cards in a pinch because you are going to have to close all of your accounts. This will reduce your credit score. But if you keep up with your payments and don’t go deeper into debt, a debt management plan can help improve your credit score long-term.
Know who you are dealing with
Don’t confuse debt management with debt settlement. Debt settlement businesses, which are illegal in certain countries, offer to settle your debt for pennies on the dollar. They collect money from you over time, put it in trust and if they think there’s enough to make your creditors a settlement deal, they negotiate an amount.
Getting to the negotiating stage can take years. In the meantime, your credit is ruined. And you may need to pay tax on the forgiven debt.