Juggling debt from multiple sources can make your finances feel like the biggest puzzle in the world.
Debt consolidation can help organize those debts and monthly payments into something much more manageable. By streamlining your debts from different credit cards or lenders into one consolidated payment — especially if you get a lower interest rate in the process — you can jump-start your debt repayment success.
However, you need to be strategic about how you implement consolidation into your repayment plan. Choose a consolidation option that works with your credit score, matches your timeline and goals, and will help you establish healthy, long-lasting financial habits.
Choosing the Right Time to Consolidate
Before choosing a consolidation method, make sure you are at the right stage of your debt repayment journey to reap the most benefits. If you’re just starting out, your options may be limited.
“Often, if someone has maxed out or their credit has been affected, it can be difficult to qualify for many options,” says Katie Bossler, financial expert and quality assurance specialist at Greenpath Financial Wellness, a national non-profit organization that provides financial counseling services. “Or the conditions may not be favorable.”
This is all the more common as lending standards change in response to the economic downturn. Lenders and creditors reduce their own risk by being more selective about who they offer these options to, let alone who qualifies for the most favorable terms.
If your credit isn’t great today, start paying off your balances using standard best practices: pay more than the minimum amount due and start making additional payments when possible.
“As you pay down debt, your credit will likely increase accordingly, so these options may become available or be more favorable,” Bossler says. Once you are further along in the payment process and have improved your score through factors such as your positive payment history and low credit usage, your consolidation options may improve.
You should also consider the types of debt you want to consolidate and how you might approach your options differently. For example, credit card balances and high-interest personal loans can be consolidated, but you should generally only consolidate student loans with other student loans.
When you’re ready to consolidate, here are some options to consider:
Credit cards with balance transfer
Balance transfer cards offer zero percent interest introductory periods, usually between 12 and 18 months. After opening the card, you can transfer other high-interest debt balances for a fee and pay them off throughout the introductory period. As you do not accrue interest, each payment will go directly to the principal.
WiseMoneyWomen’s Jordanne Wells spent much of 2019 paying off $30,000 in credit card debt. She started by changing behaviors like adopting a strict budget, making regular extra payments, and automating her payment schedule.
But Wells, 34, says consolidating the balances of his most valuable cards onto a single balance transfer card was a key part of eliminating his debt.
“Instead of having five or six different cards that I was calling, it was just one big card. I could just hit it and do it.
But like everything else in 2020, balance transfers are getting trickier. Issuers not only pulled many of their best balance transfer offers, but they also tightened lending standards, so available cards are harder to get without great credit.
Whichever consolidation method you choose, be sure to save money by transferring your high-interest debt to an option with a lower APR. Over the course of paying off your debt, even a few percentage points in interest could add up to huge savings.
If you can qualify, always make sure you have a repayment plan in place before transferring your balance to a new credit card. If you are unable to repay a significant portion of your balance during the introductory period, you will only prolong your debt and may even pay more in the long run. In fact, some issuers retroactively charge interest back to the day you transferred your balance if you don’t pay the balance in full by the end of your introductory period.
Like a balance transfer, consolidation through a personal loan can help simplify your debt repayment by combining your debts into one standard monthly payment.
The best part? You can significantly reduce your interest. While credit card interest rates average around 16%, average personal loan rates are under 10%, according to the Federal Reserve (though terms vary, with the best rates going to those who have the best credit). And since personal loan rates are often fixed, you don’t have to worry about your rate fluctuating over time.
Prepare to be proactive with paying off your debt if you choose a personal loan. Depending on the length of your repayment period, the amount you owe each month could be more than the minimum payment you’re used to paying on your credit cards, even taking into account the lower interest rate.
Before taking out a new loan, always make sure the repayment schedule matches what you are able to pay. Also, do your research to find a lender willing to give an interest rate lower than your current APR; you can get an interest rate as low as 6% with some of today’s best personal loan deals.
If you’re a homeowner, you may be able to use the equity in your home – what the home is worth minus what you owe – as a consolidation tool, through a home equity loan or home equity line. home equity loan (HELOC).
With a home equity loan, you can take out a lump sum, use it to pay off your high-interest debt, and then pay off the loan in standard monthly installments. A home equity line of credit acts more like a credit card; you can borrow against the line of credit as needed to pay off your other debts and then pay off the HELOC over time.
Like other consolidation methods, the best reason to consolidate by home equity is to score a lower interest rate (loans can be fixed, while HELOCs are often variable). Secured loans like these may also be more viable options for homeowners without great credit, as other consolidation methods generally require a good credit history.
But a home equity loan or HELOC can be risky. Because these are secured loans, using your home as collateral could risk foreclosure if you don’t pay. And since home equity loans are based on the value of your home, you could also risk owing more if your home’s value drops.
Debt management plan
If other consolidation options don’t work or you’re really overwhelmed with your debt balance, consider working with a nonprofit credit counselor on a debt management plan. These plans are designed to consolidate and reduce your monthly payments, whether your debt is from credit cards, personal loans, or even collection debt.
Always look for credible, non-profit credit counseling agencies such as those endorsed by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
Credit counselors can help you negotiate the terms of your debt, lowering your interest rate and reducing your minimum monthly payments, often based on your discretionary income and the payments you are able to make each month . This could be a particularly useful option if you want to start paying off your debts, but are facing a period of financial difficulty.
“When you’re on a debt management program, you have that monthly payment and you know the debt will be paid off within that time frame,” says Bossler. Removing the pressure of arranging payments to different lenders on different dates throughout the month allows you to focus on the other details that will help you pay off your debt, like streamlining your budget and cutting expenses.
Debt consolidation can be a great tool for paying off your debts, but you have to be smart about how you implement it. Take the time to work out the different types of debt you have and how different consolidation options can best align with what you can afford, your schedule, and your other financial goals.
“When you go through all of this, there’s not necessarily a right or wrong answer,” says Bossler. “It’s just a matter of evaluating the options available to you. Really understand the terms, the interest rates, what you’re getting into before you jump in.