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Debt Consolidation: The Pros and Cons of Your Major Options

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Debt Consolidation: The Pros and Cons of Your Major Options

Debt consolidation is a type of debt refinancing that allows consumers to pay off other debts. In general, debt consolidation entails rolling several unsecured debts, such as credit cards, personal loans or medical bills, into one single bill that’s paid off with a loan. There are dozens of ways to do this, and some include transferring debt to a zero or low-interest credit card, taking out a debt consolidation loan, applying for a home equity loan or paying back your debt through a debt repayment plan.

When researching loan consolidation options, you may come across what’s known as debt consolidation companies. Some of these are legitimate, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, however, others are incredibly risky. That’s because some may be debt settlement companies that convince you to stop paying your debts and “instead pay into a special account,” the CFPB warns. “The company will then use this money to attempt to negotiate with creditors to reduce the amount of principal you pay off.” If you’re considering this option, try to speak with a nonprofit credit counselor first because debt settlement can put your credit in jeopardy. (You can learn more about choosing a credit counselor here.)

If you don’t pay your debt, creditors could hire debt collection agencies, which could lead to a lawsuit, the CFPB says. Not paying creditors will also show up as a negative transaction on your credit report that makes it harder to borrow more money. And then there’s the risk of increasing your debt if you fail to make your payments under a debt settlement program.

Once you’ve chosen a debt consolidation method, it’s a good idea to keep the total cost as low as possible. Try not to take the maximum amount of time possible to pay off your new loan, and come up with a plan to get out of debt in three to five years. You’ll also want to read the fine print in order to avoid surprises such as a balance transfer or application fee. If an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Homeowners Have Great Options

If you’ve built up some equity and interest rates seem favorable, it may make sense to refinance your home and use the additional cash you can borrow to pay off more expensive debts. Or you might be better off taking out a home equity line of credit (HELOC) or a fixed-rate home equity loan.

Pros:

  • You can save a fortune by switching debts from the double-digits of typical credit card bills to the much lower rates on home equity loans and refinances.
  • There’s the possibility of being able to deduct the interest on home loans, which is not possible with credit card debts.
  • If you shop carefully, you’ll be able to get a good deal on closing costs, which could save money.

Cons:

  • You’re putting your home on the line, which is extremely risky unless you are certain you can trust yourself to stop overspending and to faithfully pay off the home loan(s).
  • If you go for a variable-rate loan, remember that what goes down may well go up, increasing your cost of borrowing.
  • Don’t unwittingly extend the length of time you’ll be in debt or it might cost you more over the long run than if you’d simply paid off those higher rate bills.

Tips:

  • Don’t pocket the money that your refinancing frees up every month. Instead, use it to create an emergency fund (if you don’t already have one). Once that’s set up, use the money as prepayment against your home loan or to boost your retirement savings.
  • Ditto with any tax refunds that come your way.

Cardholders Have Great Options

One of the easiest ways to consolidate your credit card debts is to call your current card issuers and ask for a better deal. If the representative seems unwilling, we recommend asking to speak with a supervisor. Lenders know the competition is tough, and it’s cheaper for them to keep you than it is to get a new customer to replace you — especially if you’re a low-maintenance borrower who pays her bills on time. While you have them on the phone, ask about these three options:

  1. Getting a special rate on any new balances that you transfer to their card.
  2. Getting the interest rate lowered on new purchases.
  3. Getting any annual fee waived.

Pros:

  • A phone call or two to a toll-free number is all it takes.
  • You have nothing to lose and you may save yourself a lot of money — now and over the long haul.

Cons:

  • If you have a spotty payment record, it may not work.
  • Instead, try getting a new low-rate credit card. This is admittedly more of a hassle than making one toll-free call, but if you’re honest about your credit situation as you look over the offers, you may find a lower-rate card without too much trouble.

Tips:

  • Ask that any balance transfer fees be waived.
  • Don’t apply for too many new cards at one time. It can hurt your credit score.
  • Watch out for teaser rates. While you can save the most by strategically transferring your debt to another low introductory rate card whenever the last “teaser” rate is about to expire, the constant balance swapping can burn you out and if you flub it, you could pay for it. Instead, try to find a card with a steady low-interest rate.
  • Be sure to plow your savings into your debts.

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Can You Borrow from Your Nest Egg?

The answer is “Yes!” if you have:

  1. A 401(k), 403(b) or other kinds of pension plans
  2. An IRA
  3. Investments, such as stocks and bonds (loans against them are called “margin” loans)

This raises many issues worthy of your consideration. If you were to withdraw retirement funds early instead, from your 401K, for example, you’d have to pay taxes and a 10% penalty.

The interest rates on these loans tend to be low — or even interest free. For example, you can use money from your IRA interest-free for 60 days. However, you must roll it over to another IRA account within 60 days.

Don’t use your IRA to pay debts unless you are 100% confident the money will be replaced within two months, say, with a tax refund. Otherwise, you’ll be hit with a penalty and taxes on the funds. (Of course, while you’re using your IRA money, it won’t be earning you any interest either.)

Pros:

  • If you have no credit history or a poor one, these borrowing options might make sense, since they require no credit check and are easy to get.
  • The interest rates are generally low, and since you’re the lender the interest gets paid to you (in the case of retirement funds). As far as margin loans and IRAs are concerned, you don’t have to make interest payments on them at all.

Cons:

  • Should you lose your job, you might have to pay back your retirement fund loan immediately … or pay taxes and penalties and have it treated as an early withdrawal.
  • You could end up robbing your retirement fund if you rely too much on these loans.
  • If you fall behind on your repayments, even though they are to yourself, the IRS will treat a retirement fund loan as an early withdrawal — 10%, plus taxes.
  • Since there’s always a risk of a “margin call” if the market crashes, most advisors urge caution here — that is, to keep margin borrowing at 20 to 25% of your investment account. (With a margin call, you may be called on to immediately pay back the loan, which may mean selling stock at an unfavorable time.)
  • Don’t use your IRA to pay debts unless you are absolutely certain that you can come up with the funds in 60 days. Otherwise, you’ll be hit with a penalty and taxes on the funds. Speak with a tax professional before undertaking an IRA rollover to be certain your plan is sound. For example, the funds have to be returned to an IRA account (same one or different).

Debt Consolidation Using Personal Loans

From friends and family:

These loans can be your best or worst nightmare. Ideally, you offer your parents or another private lender an interest rate that’s better than what they’re getting at the savings bank.

Pros:

  • Everyone can win! They get a higher rate, you get a lower rate, and you’ll be able to quickly get out of debt.
  • Depending on how the deal is structured, you both may even be able to get some tax perks. Talk to a tax pro or a lawyer.

Cons:

  • If you blow it, you may ruin one of the most important relationships in your life. Even exerting some heavy pressure on hesitant loved ones can make things very difficult, whether you get the loan or not.
  • The IRS can be a real pain when it comes to family loans. Below-market interest rates may inspire Uncle Sam to look to your family for taxes on the interest you would have had to pay a traditional lender. And there may be tax consequences if you can’t pay back the loan.

Tips:

  • Getting good tax advice is a must.
  • Come up with a concrete plan before you approach family and friends. Know what interest rate you’d like to propose and how much your monthly payments will be.
  • Get the agreement in writing, and be sure it states what the late charges will be (not that you would dare miss a payment), and what will happen if you default on the loan.

A tip for Mom and Dad: 
If your kids ask you for a loan — for debt consolidation or any other purpose – even if you can easily afford the requested amount — take a good, hard look before you agree. If you do go for it, keep it as professional as possible. Not only will you be bailing out your children at an important time in their lives, you’ll be giving them an excellent borrowing experience.

From Banks and Credit Unions:

In the days of yore, when people needed a hand catching up on their bills, they strolled into the neighborhood bank, spoke to branch manager, shook hands on a loan, and got a check for the amount they needed. These days, while you can still get personal loans from banks and credit unions, there are generally lower-rate options, such as the ones we have been discussing.

The rates are better when the loan is secured and you’ve been a bank customer for years than when the loan is unsecured and given solely against your good name. So check where you currently bank.

Pros:

  • Depending on your circumstances and the local competition between lenders, you may be able to get a great rate.
  • If you set up the loan for three to five years, you will be “forced” to stay on your debt consolidation schedule. If you let the bank take the payments from your account automatically, you may get an even better rate.

Cons:

  • If you have a spotty credit history with many outstanding debts, you will not be offered a great rate from a bank.
  • While there are many online offers for personal loans, be wary. Only go to sites you trust before you even consider borrowing.

Remember, don’t hesitate to ask your bank or credit union to give you a better deal if they want to keep your business. And be sure to discuss the situation with a lender before your credit report is pulled. If the bank’s terms are not to your liking, there’s no reason to have its inquiry show on your credit report.

Remember, it’s important not to let yourself get so deeply in debt again. Pay your bills on time,  even if all you can afford is the minimum. (Always try to send in more than the minimum.) If you’re in a financial jam because of a situation that’s beyond your control — say an illness or job loss — get help now. You do have options. Finally, be sure that your credit score is high enough for you to be approved for your best debt consolidation option. You can view two of your credit scores, updated every 14 days, for free on Credit.com.


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  • http://www.coralseamercantile.com.au Coral Mercintile

    A very well written article about debt consolidation. You can consolidate your loan by credit card balance transfer and debt consolidation loan.

  • http://www.Credit.com/ Gerri Detweiler

    Have you consulted with a bankruptcy attorney? If not, that’s what I would recommend as your next step.

  • http://www.Credit.com/ Gerri Detweiler

    I think the writer was trying to recap the options above. If you feel like you are at the end financially, then by all means you want to consult a bankruptcy attorney. They may be able to help you get a fresh start.

  • http://www.Credit.com/ Gerri Detweiler

    We have written an article about that! You’ll find it here: Will Debt Consolidation Help or Hurt Your Credit?

  • http://www.Credit.com/ Gerri Detweiler

    Paying off the debt with the highest interest rate first will save you the most money.

  • Tina

    I’ve read quite a bit about debt consolidation/debt relief…My husband is on permanent disability and on a fixed income. He’s now doing debt consolidation on his credit cards because he’s fallen behind. I don’t make much money either, but I’m not doing debt consolidation, How will this affect me and my credit cards? I’ve heard that my creditors will demolish my credit because of his consolidation.

    • http://www.Credit.com/ Gerri Detweiler

      Tina,

      I assume by debt consolidation you mean that he is repaying his debts through a credit counseling organization. (By credit counseling I mean a program where he pays back 100% of the debt; not a program where they negotiate settlements for less than the full amount.) If he is in credit counseling it shouldn’t destroy his credit. Yes, he has to close his accounts but he pays them on time and will still have an on-time payment history.

      As for your credit, the only impact to your credit rating is if joint debts are included in the program. Those joint debts will appear closed on your credit reports and that could have an effect on your credit scores. But again, it shouldn’t demolish them.

      I know this is a very tough time for both of you and I know it’s not easy to take a hit to your credit. But as negative information becomes older it has less impact and you can rebuild your credit. So focus on trying to get rid of the debt and then you can focus on your credit reports and scores. Hopefully you’ll have a lot less stress once the debt is paid off.

  • rosanna

    My husband is thinking we should refinance and pull all the money out of our equity to pay off our 50k credit card debt. Our “new” payments will go up about $70 for our already low mortgage payment; however it extends the mortgage a new 30 year loan. Is this a good idea? We had previously considered a debt consolidation which would help us pay off our credit cards and loans in about 5 years with a very high payment. I’m afraid to make this commitment in the event that an emergency happens and we need to pay for groceries one time using our credit card. I still want the flexibility of using our credit when we need it. We’ve made great progress this year so far and have not utilized our cards. We have high balances now and would like to be debt free! So, refinance or debt consolidation???

    • http://www.Credit.com/ Gerri Detweiler

      How much equity do you have? Would there still be enough to pay off the home if you had to sell for some reason? Have you thought about getting a home equity loan and paying it off faster?

  • Luke

    does consolidation affect your current card credit limit or result in loosing the cards?

    • http://www.Credit.com/ Gerri Detweiler

      If you mean a consolidation loan then no, it shouldn’t. If you mean credit counseling then yes, you will have to close your current credit cards (at least most of them).

  • Alyssa

    I am 22 and have acquired $5500 in credit card debt. I am having difficulty making payments because I have 5 credit cards and they have interest rates ranging from 22.99 to 26.99. Would debt consolidation be right for me? Or should I try balance transfer card? I’ve done some research and with my credit, 665, I don’t think I’d get a good deal.

    • http://www.credit.com/ Credit.com Credit Experts

      Alyssa —
      Debt consolidation or credit counseling might be your best bet. If your credit score keeps you from qualifying for a balance transfer card (and it is likely). Because applying for a card, whether you get it or not, causes a small, temporary drop in your score. You can read more here:
      Does Credit Counseling Work?


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