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There’s no single way to get out of debt that’s best for everyone. Each individual case is as unique as you are.

It’s important to consider your situation when deciding which debt relief plan is the best option for you. To help you weigh those options, we have provided an overview of some of the major options here:

  • Debt avalanche and debt snowball
  • Debt consolidation
  • Credit counseling
  • Debt management plan (DMP)
  • Debt settlement and debt negotiation
  • Bankruptcy

How Debt Relief Programs Affect Credit

The debt that you carry (your credit utilization rate) makes up roughly one-third of your overall credit score. When you pay off debt, your credit score typically improves. This is especially true with revolving credit lines—such as credit cards—where your balance is approaching or hovering around the maximum limit. You want to keep your utilization rate below 30% to avoid negative effects to your credit score.

However, reducing your debt can also lower your credit score—even when it’s a good thing! For example, paying off a loan and closing that account may reduce your credit age or mix of accounts, which account for about 15% and 10% of your credit score, respectively.

The type of debt relief program you use can also positively or negatively affect your credit score. Debt settlement, for example, utilizes some tactics that generally have a more negative effect than other types of debt relief programs. Keeping in mind your current credit standing, the program itself and your credit needs will help you make the best choice.

Start by signing up for the free credit report card from Credit.com. This handy tool provides a letter grade for each of the five key areas of your credit for a quick snapshot of where you stand. You can also dig deeper into each factor to monitor what’s happening with your credit and find areas for improvement.

Sign up for the free Credit Report Card now.

The Main Approaches to Debt Relief

Once you have a clear picture of your credit history, you can choose one of the six main approaches to debt relief to help you get out of debt. These include the snowball/avalanche option, debt consolidation, credit counseling, debt management plans, debt negotiation/debt settlement and bankruptcy. Each option has its own advantages and drawbacks as well as its own impact on your credit score, both short term and long term.

Debt Relief OptionImmediate Credit ImpactLong-Term Credit Impact
Debt Snowballs and AvalanchesNoneReliably Positive
Debt ConsolidationSmall impact (positive or negative)Minimal
Credit CounselingNone expectedNone expected
Debt Management Plan (DMP)Moderate impact (positive or negative)Minimal
Debt Negotiation or Debt SettlementSevere damangeSlow recovery
BankruptcySevere damageSlow recovery

Debt Snowball and Debt Avalanche

  • Immediate Credit Impact: None
  • Long-Term Credit Impact: Reliably Positive

The debt snowball and debt avalanche approaches are simply methods of repaying your debts. The choice between snowball or avalanche often comes down to a matter of personal choice.

The debt snowball is when you pay off your debts one at a time, starting with the ones that have the lowest balance. This eliminates those debts from your credit record quickly.

The debt avalanche is when you pay off your debts one at a time, but you start with those that have the highest balances instead. While it takes longer to clear debt from your credit history, the debt you clear takes a larger chunk out of your overall balance owed.

As long as you stick to the minimum payments needed on all of your other credit accounts while you work to pay down your debt, this method has little immediate impact on your credit report and a reliably positive one long term.

Debt Consolidation

  • Immediate Credit Impact: Small (positive or negative)
  • Long-Term Credit Impact: Minimal

Debt consolidation loans and balance transfer credit cards can help you manage your debt by combining multiple lines of credit under one loan or credit card. While this helps by making one payment out of several, it’s not a strategy that actually gets you out of debt. It’s more like a tool to help you get out of debt faster and easier.

Consolidation loans often offer lower interest rates than the original credit lines themselves, which enables you to pay off your debt faster. In addition, having one lower monthly payment makes it easier to avoid late or missed payments.

Balance transfer credit cards let you transfer debt from other cards for a minimal fee. These cards sometimes require that you pay off the balance transfer balance within a certain timeframe to avoid being charged interest. If you choose a balance transfer card, be sure you choose one with terms favorable to your situation and needs.

This form of debt relief has its own set of pros and cons. While it can improve your credit utilization ratio by paying off balances that are close to the credit limit, simply moving balances from one creditor to another doesn’t do a lot for your immediate scores. Transferring multiple debts to one balance transfer card may make your utilization rate higher, which could drop your score as well.

At the same time, opening a new account will require a hard inquiry, which will slightly negatively impact your credit score. A debt consolidation loan adds a new account to your credit report, which most credit scoring models count as a risk factor that may drop your score in the short term as well. On the other hand, adding a loan or credit card to your credit history could improve your credit mix. You’ll need to keep all these factors in mind when determining whether a debt consolidation loan or balance transfer credit card is right for you.

Credit Counseling

  • Immediate Credit Impact: None expected
  • Long-Term Credit Impact: None expected

A credit counselor is a professional adviser that helps you manage and repay your debt. Counselors may offer free or low-cost consultations and educational materials. They often lead their clients to enroll in other debt relief programs such as a debt management plan, which generally require a fee and can affect your credit (see below for more information). Bes ure you fully understand the potential impact of any debt relief program suggested by a credit counselor before you sign up. They’re here to help, so don’t be afraid to ask your counselor how a new plan could affect your credit.

Credit counseling can also help you avoid accumulating debt in the first place. By consulting a credit counselor about whether or not a line of credit is advisable given your current situation, for example, you can avoid taking on debt that will affect you adversely. Choosing a good credit counselor for your situation is essential for positive results.

Debt Management Plan

  • Immediate Credit Impact: Moderate (positive or negative)
  • Long-Term Credit Impact: Minimal

A Debt Management Plan is typically set up by a credit counselor or counseling agency. You make one monthly payment to that agency, and the agency disburses that payment among your creditors. This debt management program can affect your credit in several ways, mostly positive.

While individual lenders may care that a credit counseling agency is repaying your accounts, FICO does not. Since FICO is the leading data analytics company responsible for calculating consumer credit risk, that means a DMP will not adversely affect your credit score. Of course, delinquent payments and high balances will continue to bring your score down even if you’re working with an agency.

When you agree to a DMP, you are required to close your credit cards. This will likely lower your scores, but how much depends on how the rest of your credit report looks. Factors such as whether or not you have other open credit accounts that you pay on time will determine how much closing these lines of credit will hurt your score.

Regardless, the negative effect is temporary. In the end, the impact of making consistent on-time payments to your remaining credit accounts will raise your credit scores.

Debt Negotiation or Settlement

  • Immediate Credit Impact: Severe damage
  • Long-Term Credit Impact: Slow recovery

Some creditors are willing to allow you to settle your debt. Negotiating with creditors allows you to pay less than the full balance owed and close the account.

Creditors only do this for consumers with several delinquent payments on their credit report. However, creditors generally charge off debts once they hit the mark of being 180 days past due. Since charged-off debts are turned over to collection agencies, it is important to try to settle an account before it gets charged off.

Debt settlement companies negotiate with creditors on your behalf, but their tactics often require you to stop paying your bills entirely, which can have a severe negative impact on your credit score. In general, debt settlement is considered a last resort and many professionals recommend bankruptcy before debt settlement.

Bankruptcy

  • Immediate Credit Impact: Severe damage
  • Long-Term Credit Impact: Slow recovery

Filing for bankruptcy will severely damage your credit score and can stay on your credit report for as long as 10 years from the filing date. However, if you are truly in a place of debt from which all other debt relief programs cannot save you, bankruptcy may be the best option.

Moreover, by working diligently to rebuild your credit after bankruptcy you have a good shot at improving your credit scores. Depending upon which type of bankruptcy you file for—Chapter 7, Chapter 11 or Chapter 13—you will pay back different amounts of your debt and it will take varying timelines before your credit can be restored.

Learning the difference between the three main types of bankruptcy can help you choose the right one. A qualified consumer bankruptcy attorney can help you evaluate your options.

Getting Debt Free

Whichever method of debt relief you choose, the ultimate goal is always to pay off your debt. That way, you can save and invest for your future goals. For some, taking a hit to credit temporarily is worth it if it means being able to finally get their balances to zero.

By monitoring your credit with tools like our free Credit Report Card and keeping your financial situation in perspective, complete debt relief is not only possible but within reach.

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