If you’re feeling weighed down by several credit card balances, credit card debt consolidation could provide some serious relief.
Here’s how credit card consolidation works: You first decide if you want to take out a new loan, open a new credit card or enroll in a debt management plan (more on that later). Whichever option you choose, you will use it to pay off your multiple balances. Then you’ll only have one monthly payment: the loan, the credit card or the debt management plan. Not only does that simplify your debt payments, it can also help you save money.
The best way to consolidate credit card debt — and whether consolidation will work for you at all — depends on your situation, so you might want to consult a non-profit credit counselor about your best options. The following five tips can help you figure out which credit card consolidation strategy suits you best.
1. Check Your Credit Reports & Scores
One of the first things you’ll want to do is check your credit reports for accuracy. An error on any of your credit reports could prevent you from qualifying for the debt consolidation help you need, so if you find an error, dispute it. You can get your free annual credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies — TransUnion, Equifax and Experian. And, Credit.com’s free credit report summary can help you understand what’s inside your credit report. It also provides you with two free credit scores.
Once you know where your credit stands, you’ll have most of the information you’ll need to help you decide what credit card debt consolidation plan should work best for you.
2. Get to Know Your Options
There are several safe and smart ways to consolidate credit card debt, so you’ll want to research them before deciding what’s best for you. Some strategies will be more affordable than others, and your credit card consolidation choices may be limited by your credit standing.
Consolidation Credit Cards
If you have good credit, look for a credit card with a low interest rate. You can transfer high interest rate credit card balances to a single card with a lower APR and save money on monthly finance charges as you pay down your debt. For consumers with good credit, there are several balance transfer and low interest rate credit card offers available. You may even qualify for a card with a 0% rate for 12 or 18 months.
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Personal loans charge simple interest (as opposed to credit cards, which often have variable rates and sometimes have different rates for balance transfers and purchases on the same card) and they typically have loan terms of three to five years. By consolidating your credit card debt into a personal loan, you’ll have a definite plan for paying off your old card debt.
You may be able to consolidate your debt with a personal loan from your bank or credit union. But, before applying, be sure to ask about the lender’s credit requirements. Keep in mind that you’ll need excellent credit to qualify for the lowest interest rate on a personal loan.
Be sure to check out any potential online lenders with the Better Business Bureau before applying for a debt consolidation loan online. And you can verify if a lender is registered to do business in your state by contacting your state Attorney General’s office or your state’s Department of Banking or Financial Regulation.
Beware of any lender that promises to offer you a loan regardless of your credit. It’s also a good idea to stay clear of websites and lenders that charge you big upfront fees for a debt consolidation loan.
If you’re making little to no progress repaying your credit card balances or consider yourself to have a severe debt problem, you may want to reach out to a reputable credit counseling agency about a debt management plan.
With a debt management plan, you make one monthly payment to a credit counseling agency and the agency pays each of your credit card lenders. A lender may lower the interest rate on your credit card balance when you participate in a debt management plan. Debt management plans typically last three to five years.
3. Do the Math
Credit card debt consolidation may save you money, but it’s often not free. Credit cards may have a balance transfer fee, so you’ll want to make sure that cost doesn’t outweigh the potential benefit of getting a lower interest rate on your debt. Promotional interest rates expire — like 12 months of a 0% APR on a balance transfer card — so make sure you can repay your debt within that time frame, otherwise you may not be saving any money at all.
The same goes for debt consolidation loans: Ask about any loan origination fees, and make sure the loan payment amount is something that easily fits into your budget. Failing to pay a personal loan as agreed will hurt your credit, so stay on top of your loan payments and work to build up a solid payment history.
No matter what credit card consolidation options you’re considering, be sure to ask about any fees you may have to pay, and factor those numbers into your decision.
4. Don’t Forget About Your Credit Scores
Credit card consolidation can affect your credit in many ways, depending on which strategy you choose. For example, if you’re consolidating multiple balances onto one card, you’ll want to avoid maxing out that card’s credit limit, because that will hurt your credit utilization rate (how much debt you’re carrying compared to your total credit limit).
You also may not want to close your old credit cards, as this can potentially ding your scores as well. By keeping your old credit cards open, you will not lower your credit utilization. Your credit utilization counts toward 30% of your credit score, and that’s why it’s important to keep that ratio low — under 30% and, optimally, less than 10% of your credit limits, overall and on individual cards.
Keep in mind a debt management plan may have a negative impact on your credit during the course of the program because your creditors will close or suspend your accounts while in the program, and this can affect your credit utilization. So make sure you are ready to live credit card free for a while. (Not every creditor has to participate, so you may be able to keep a credit card out of the debt management plan if you need it to remain open for travel or business purposes, for example.)
Once you complete your plan, some of your creditors may re-establish your credit based on your new, debt-free status and the on-time payment history you established through the course of the debt management plan.
Other ways credit card consolidation can hurt your credit: Applying for a new line of credit results in a hard inquiry on your credit report, adding a new credit account can lower the average age of your credit history and a new personal loan will show that you have a high level of outstanding debt (your scores should improve as your remaining balance shrinks from where it started).
There are credit score perks, too. Adding a personal loan to your credit history can improve your mix of accounts (it’s good to have a combination of installment and revolving credit, like credit cards). And if you make your credit card or loan payments as agreed, you’ll establish a positive payment history, which affects your credit scores more than anything else. (Payment history accounts for 35% of traditional credit scoring models.)
5. Commit to the Plan
Transferring credit card balances, paying off credit cards with a personal loan or enrolling in a debt management plan is only the beginning of credit card debt consolidation. For it to truly help you get out of debt, you have to stick to the plan, whether that’s paying off your credit card balance within a 12-month promotional financing period or making sure you make payments as agreed for the entire five-year loan term. Throughout the process, you can keep tabs on how your credit card consolidation plan is affecting your credit by reviewing your free annual credit reports and viewing your two free credit scores on Credit.com.
Lucy Lazarony contributed to this article.